Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Patriarchal Problem

“As every parent can testify, initially our children believe we can do no wrong; later on they believe we can do no right.” 
 -Joseph J. Ellis 

Wallace: Sons of Scotland, I am William Wallace.

Young soldier: William Wallace is seven feet tall!

Wallace: Yes, I’ve heard ... and if he were here, he’d consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse.

One of my favorite moments from the movie Braveheart is at the beginning of William Wallace’s epic Freedom speech. Wallace’s victories had made him such a legend that young soldiers came to expect a demi-god on the battlefield. He responds to the misperception with some humor, then shows his countrymen that he’s just a man like them, and a fellow Son of Scotland. This allows Wallace to win the hearts of the soldiers, who then fight as one man under him.

Our heroes are required to live paradoxical lives. We yearn for them to be like us … yet beyond us. Unfortunately, this paradox presents a problem.

We want to relate to our leaders. This is why presidential candidates try to portray themselves as ordinary Americans. It’s why LeBron James, in his statement about returning to Cleveland writes, “Before anyone cared where I would play basketball, I was just a kid from Northeast Ohio.” Even Superman is just a mild-mannered Kansas farm boy at heart.

In order for a hero to be our hero, he’s got to be one of us.

At the same time, we also expect a hero to be on a different level – stronger, braver, smarter, more skilled – than we are. If they aren’t, why should they be at the front of the pack? Author Simon Sinek puts it this way:

“It is true that the alpha may really be ‘stronger’ than the rest of us … That’s good. Because when the group faces a threat from the outside, we expect the leader, who really is stronger, better fed and oozing with confidence … to be the first one to rush toward danger to protect the rest of us.”

In order for one of us to be a hero, he’s got to be beyond us.

While most of us don’t interact with presidents or pro athletes on a regular basis, we tend to apply the same expectation to our everyday heroes – that is, those who lead as husbands, fathers, bosses, mentors, coaches, or pastors. We expect them to be both average and amazing. Is that unfair? Not at all. What is unfair is to expect our leaders to be one and not the other.


Biographer Joseph J. Ellis refers to this as the Patriarchal Problem. “As every parent can testify, initially our children believe we can do no wrong; later on they believe we can do no right.”

The Reconciliation of David and Absalom, Rembrandt
As children, our young minds have trouble with paradoxes. We don't have the capacity to grasp multi-faceted personalities. Then as we mature, we begin to observe – in ourselves and others – displays of brilliance and ineptitude, boldness and fear, good and evil. In other words, we begin to realize there are many sides to a person.

Yet, in moments of high emotion, we tend to revert to our immature methods of processing. We worship or demonize based on the way people make us feel. And because our leaders evoke so many emotions in us, they are endlessly bombarded with irrational amounts of either adoration or criticism.

So what is a fair response? How can we be mature in the way we process? Being mesmerized by a leader's strengths or disheartened at their shortcomings is a thing of youth. A more balanced, more mature approach is to love and honor our fellow man in his finest hour and when he is most in need of grace.

And in so doing, we resemble the most righteous hero Who, although He was beyond us, became one of us in order to lead us to victory and life. Forever. Amen.