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Flaws in Our Icons



The Wanderer

December 14, 2006

In every society there are icons: some people who because of their talents, their personality, or their successes have become role models for others. These leaders do have an enormous influence on their fans: some for good, some for evil. In this context, I shall concentrate on someone whose fame is fully deserved for she has helped and continues to help thousands of troubled people. I am referring to Dr. Laura Schlessinger. 


She certainly deserves our praise and admiration: the child of a troubled and unhappy marriage, she has succeeded in changing a defeat into a victory, and invites her audience to follow in her footsteps. Her last book Bad Childhood—Good Life will be a gospel for millions of people wounded by an unhappy youth—by lack of love and attention from unworthy parents. Dr. Schlessinger knows that our society is a sick one: plagued by hedonism, selfishness, self-centeredness, ambition, breakdown of the family, alcoholism, drugs, sexual abuse, and perversions. She knows it all, and courageously fights against these evils which make a rich society very poor indeed. She deserves our thanks and praise.


In the book just referred to, recalling a response to a very unhappy caller complaining about her poor self-image, she writes the following lines which deserve quoting: "I told her that I have never opened my eyes, not even one single morning of my life, and given any thought whatsoever to if or how much I love myself, and that I couldn't imagine ever doing so… our value, our lovability... are products of what you give" (Bad Childhood—Good Life, Schlessinger, 200).


These are precious lines so needed in a society in which most people make themselves so unlovable by constantly taking their pulse to ascertain how lovable they are and eternally complaining that they have a low self-esteem. The "cure" suggested by some popular psychiatrists is to feed narcissism and to convince their clients that they are in fact as good-looking, intelligent, and outstanding as those they envy. They should therefore feel good about themselves. These patients go from low self-esteem to narcissism.


How grateful we must be to Dr. Schlessinger for writing these words. She adds wisely, "Contemplating your own navel is not the way to gain self-respect, it is by contemplating our place in the lives of others." This caller then thanked her for helping her see how terribly self-centered she had always been. Dr. Schlessinger writes, "...and with that came two images to her mind: first the thought about Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa—who were not classically beautiful people, but of such beautiful spirit because of their actions and loving service" (Bad Childhood—Good Life, Schlessinger, 202).

Dr. Schlessinger has clearly scored a major victory in convincing a woman whose “crime” (self-centeredness) was her punishment (unhappiness), that the cure is away from oneself and to develop a loving concern about others.


Her true fans, however, cannot help but wish that this success will be crowned by another insight and that she will help her clients perceive that this first step—away from oneself—should not blind her to very serious flaws in her newly discovered icon. To mention Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa in the same breath is bound to create some shock in those of us who understand the chasm separating a well-intentioned humanitarianism from holiness. The question is not to denigrate the good intentions of the former first lady. It is rather to realize, following the insights of Max Scheler, that between natural good will and supernatural heroism (the fruit of God’s grace), there is an impassable abyss. He has admirably highlighted the difference lying between humanitarianism and supernatural charity. 


It might be argued in Dr. Schlessinger’s defense that this all-important distinction was not her “theme.” She was grateful that this woman had opened her eyes to her selfishness. But we may question whether Dr. Schlessinger herself is fully aware of the danger of choosing as an icon someone whose sincere social concerns did not protect her against an incredible blindness. I am referring to the well-known fact that, after the war, the former first lady was honored in Moscow by the USSR, and delivered a speech in which she praised the success achieved by the Soviet Union in endorsing “Eastern democracy.”


This episode is related by a man who succeeded in escaping from the “workers’ paradise,” and took refuge in the United States. He wrote a book—which I read in the late 1960s—which mirrors the Gulag of Solzhenitsyn. He remarked that, ironically, Mrs. Roosevelt was delivering her moving and mendacious eulogy close to the fearful Lubyanka prison where thousands of innocent people were tortured or killed for daring to challenge what is possibly—together with Nazism—the most diabolical regime that has ever existed. 


One can imagine how the leaders of the USSR must have marveled at the stupidity of Americans! The refined chemistry of propaganda, combined with treason and American naivete, had succeeded beyond their highest expectations.


Can we be certain that Dr. Schlessinger herself perceived the discordant note of placing two people so widely different on the same level? But another one of her attitudes makes one wonder. Dr. Schlessinger clearly opposes moral relativism. Armed by a sound moral sense, she opposes "shacking up," and deplores the sexual morass in which most people live. On the other hand—and this once again comes as a surprise—while strongly recommending religion for its psychological value, she seems to put more importance on "being religious" (and the word religion today is as ambiguous as the word love: Shirley MacLaine probably considers herself to be a very religious person) than on the question of truth. Whether one's beliefs are true or false does not seem to be a primary concern of hers. She fights relativism, but unwittingly reintroduces it by the back door.


No doubt a "religious" outlook is beneficial to man, but, as remarked by Plato, the religious domain is one in which the question of truth is most crucial. Any error concerning the object that matters most—God—has serious consequences.


It is surprising that someone who has such a keen perception of the poison of relativism does not perceive that it is precisely in the religious domain that its danger is greatest. Being Jewish, she certainly knows that the one true God condemns idolatry that is any service addressed to "false gods." How does this vagueness square with her Judaism? She would benefit by reading Plato. But the more one admires a person, the more troubling it is when one discovers flaws and weaknesses which, in fact, do not square with the image we have of our icon.


Like all great personalities, Dr. Schlessinger is someone who keeps growing and we can assume that she will not shut her ears to a loving criticism aimed at making her work still better.


Let us pray that this noble personality will forever deepen her not fully awakened love for truths that still escape her.

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