She was brilliant. Ranked in the top five of her graduate seminary class. A soon-to-be-ordained priest, she was the rising star of her Christian denomination. She stepped to the pulpit that morning to preach to faculty and students in chapel. And it was obvious in the first 15 seconds.
She was drunk.
Now, if you’re going to drop your metaphorical britches in public, she picked a good place to do it. She was surrounded by love. The dean himself simply approached the pulpit, whispered in her ear and escorted her away. The organist was cued. Worship continued. For my alcoholic colleague there was rehab, confrontation of self and eventually reconciliation with the seminary community. Her personal and professional life unfolded meaningfully and productively.
But among us, her graduate school classmates, there remained conversation for a time. Not gossip, more an unsettling anxiety. How does this happen? How and why do brilliant, gifted, talented, powerful people simply burn down their lives in public?
You must know I’ve been thinking about Eliot Spitzer, late the popular governor of New York, now resigned in ignominy. How does a man riding a shooting star simply decide to bail without a parachute? To douse himself with metaphorical gasoline and light the match?
Before digging into that question, some distinctions are important. Perhaps you will be disappointed in me; but, for me, the issue is not sex, not marital infidelity, not single-malt scotch. These things might be sad. Even disappointing. But not at all surprising. For me, these behaviors constitute more or less ordinary human weakness. Ordinary human failings.
President Franklin Roosevelt had a mistress, but this alters not one whit my appreciation for his leadership of the United States through the Great Depression and World War II.
Paul Tillich was perhaps the greatest American Protestant theologian. When I learned he died in the arms of a prostitute, I didn’t throw his books away. Nope. The man’s theological brilliance issued forth in part because of his brokenness. How could that surprise us?
I’m fine with ordinary human weakness. I’m fine with it, in part, because I presuppose it. About every human being. No one is without some broken darkness inside them. I’m also fine with it because, if there is a place in this world for me and my weakness — my humanity — then that place is only wrought by my willingness to make a place for the weakness of others. This is a fancy way of saying that, given my glass house, I’ve found it unwise to throw rocks.
But something more than ordinary human weakness is going on with Eliot Spitzer, just as something more was going on with my drunken graduate school colleague. The same thought crossed my mind about President Bill Clinton. It has a colloquial name in my profession: acting-out behavior. We mean by that a behavior born of crisis, a behavior that attempts to resolve an anguished psychological dilemma.
Specifically, I call Mr. Spitzer’s behavior “Catch Me If You Can (But in the End I’ll Make Sure You Do).” What I mean is the behavior is, on the one hand, hidden, behavior couched in facade and deceit. On the other hand, the strategy for hiding it is pathetically obvious. Meaning, it hides nothing.
People playing “Catch Me If You Can” are the worst liars/hiders on the planet. Some people, for example, successfully hide extramarital affairs for years. Others in the first 30 days “accidentally” leave the matchbook cover in their coat pocket. Forget to delete the cell phone texts. They leave footprints 6 inches deep in new-fallen snow, and then swear on a stack of Bibles they didn’t mean to get caught.
But I’m telling you they did mean to get caught. Because they despised themselves. Because they were not conscious of the pain and emptiness inside themselves, so they “acted it out” with behavior too obvious to miss. They literally force their loved ones or colleagues to become the firing squad, the headsman, the hangman that executes a life they experience as phony, empty and unbearable.
Or, in the case of Kurt Cobain, you just cut out the middleman and become your own executioner. For real.
What I think is that it takes a great deal of ego strength to cope with fame, celebrity and power. Without it, public adoration creates a personal crisis, because, in the end, we know we don’t deserve to be adored.
So we take the necessary steps to prove that point in spades to our adoring public. Not consciously, but nonetheless.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.