I got a piece of fan mail from a young woman at Goldsmith College in London calling me her “idol.” I’m not so comfortable with being anyone’s idol and I actually don’t think it does us much good to worship outer idols. Instead we need to give our energy to bringing our inner idols out.
Here’s what I wrote:
Thank you so much for your note.
It’s hard to take in such kind praise. I always imagine that people have an image of me and that I don’t really measure up to it. I always think I don’t do enough and that I spend too much time chasing after things I want or my ambitions or what not. I guess that is my struggle–to actually believe that I am enough.
But what does give me hope is that when you or someone like you praises me highly and calls me their “idol,” it is because they recognize some part of themselves in their image of me. Inside you, is some kind of hero that
perhaps you haven’t fully owned.
We are all scared to let our heroes out, don’t you think? We don’t trust that we can be as good or great as the other people who we think of us as heroes. So we think “who am I to act heroic?” It is our societal Icarus complex, coming to the fore.
Of course, that’s all the domain of ego and it is like struggling with a ghost that has no substance. That is part of the beauty and folly of humanity though, isn’t it? That we struggle with illusions. Recognizing that, we can have compassion for each other.
But my point here is this, the person to keep as your idol is not me but you. What you think you see in me is actually in you. Cherish it. Nurture it. Let it come out. Don’t be scared.
Personally, I idolize Ghandi and Tolstoy because of their emphasis on non-violence. Tolstoy believed that the entire of Jesus’s teaching could be summed up in this simple phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “resist not evil.”
Ghandi, as much good as he did, was meant to have been a terrible tyrant as a husband. He put his poor wife through hell in many ways. But what I admire about him is that he let the hero in himself come out even though it also caused light to be shined on those parts of himself that were not heroic (he didn’t resist his own evil).
Personally, that’s what I dislike most about my role I’ve found myself in since No Impact Man. That by being a public figure in this way, the people near me also see all my faults and foibles and sometimes they get hurt because of them. I find that kind of humiliating.
To be heroic, we kind of have to be willing to be humiliated.
My friend Julia Butterfly Hill says that extraordinary people are just “extra ordinary.” They are people who are willing to have their complete humanity shine out. They are willing to let the bad parts come out and be witnessed in order to let the good parts come out and be witnessed. Resist not evil.
So in some ways, when we idolize someone, what we are really doing is saying “Thanks for letting the good parts I see in myself come out in yourself. Thanks for taking those risks.”
And what I am saying to you is, never mind about idolizing other people. Instead, idolize those parts in yourself. And idolize them in the people you see around you. That will draw the hero out in all of us.
I appreciate your thanks so much. But it’s hard to take. It’s hard, I think, because I’d like to be hero but the praise reminds me how much I think I’m not. How far from it I really am.
I guess that is being human, huh? That we are all complicated creatures. Here’s to hoping we will all be willing to let the complications out so that we can together get to the work of building a better world.