Another rock star is dead before the age of 30. On Facebook, in among the expressions of sadness, people are ranting about what a bad role model the dearly departed was. Does everyone in the public eye have to be a role model? Really?
I started thinking about other public figures and whether or not they were always considered role models. Politicians? Check. Writers? Check. Millionaires/billionaires? Check and check. Opera singers? Check. Actors? Check. What about on a smaller scale, like teachers? Check. Religious leaders? Check. Business owners? Check.
Other than teachers, it seems like all these folks have a reputation for running amok. Whatís the deal? Is there something about being in the public eye that attracts people who are damaged? Or is it that being in the public eye causes such damage that the psyche breaks down and indulgence takes over?
I started thinking about the nature of over-indulgence and self-indulgence. It seems like the line of work influences that too. Rock stars overdo with substance abuse. Opera singers with food. Actors with ornamentation like jewelry, clothing, houses, and cars. Politicians seem to indulge in many directions, often including the thing they most vigorously campaign against. Religious leaders seem to fall off the straight-and-narrow when it comes to making predictions or caring for young people. Business owners get obsessed with the bottom line and step over the ethical line.
Whatís the deal? As a musician and a writer myself, I thought for a while about the people with whom I do these things. Do we over-indulge too? Hmm. Not that I know of. Is that why none of us are famous?
Now wait a minute. Do you have to be famous to be a role model? My parents were my role models, and some teachers. I canít think of a single famous person that I considered a role model when I was young. Oh, there were people that I idolizedóthe Beatles, Amelia Earhart, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Isadora Duncan, Louisa May Alcott. But did I want to grow up to be just like them? Not really. Did they inspire me to do my best in some things? Absolutely.
So what is it about todayís youth that needs to emulate famous people? Has it always been true? Did I want to be Bach when I grew up? Or Agatha Christie? Do they make it look easy enough that the rest of us think that we can do it too?Are we, in the end, drawn toward role models whose virtuesóand failingsówe want to emulate? Did I become a classically trained musician because I wanted to feel a little out of touch with my own times? Or perhaps I chose writing, technology, and music because people with the same inclination toward introversion, introspection, and celebration are also involved.
Do I still have role models? Well, yes, I suppose I do: My parents, certain teachers, several of my parentís friends. Oh, and there are those individuals who teach me about kindness and humor and grace in the tiny little lessons of living their lives in light of those things. These are my role models now, and frankly, the list looks much the same as it would have when I was thirteen even though many of the names have changed.
There are still the Theodore Bikel characters, the Pete Seegers, those standing up for truth and against injustice, and those committed to their craft, whatever that might be, and who follow their destinies even if that doesnít make them rich, famous, or even popular. These perfectly ordinary people are my role models now, and apparently, have always been my role models.
Perhaps there is no famous person with whom I would trade placesóisnít that what a role model is? No, I would rather achieve my own fame and notoriety under the steam of my own efforts and skills. Itís not that I donít want to be rich and famous, of course. Itís that I want to be expert at my own craft and be recognized for it. I donít have a problem with working hard to achieve whatever it is that Iím going to achieve, either. If it were easy, I probably wouldnít value it as much.
So, do people who, say, choose rock and roll, do they choose it because it represents a lifestyle that they want for themselves? And is that the same for all rockers? Is it loud guitars, driving bass, crashing drums, and mind-altering amounts of drugs and alcohol? And those who choose writing, is it because they like being alone, being moody, and experiencing a lot of rejection? What about opera singers makes them so obsessed with the pleasures of the senses?
Is this a chicken and egg question? I donít know.
This week, another famous person is dead from self-indulgence (presumably) and people are decrying the poor thing as a bad role model. Isnít it really the obligation of the individual to choose role models who inspire us to do our best and not our worst? And when we choose a role model who proves to have a tragic weakness, is it their fault that they fail us? Or is it our own bad choice that is at fault?
Is it our wanting them to be perfect that drives them to the point where they are completely consumed by their own imperfection? Shouldnít we pick role models without such obvious defects? Or do we choose them because they succeed despite their failings? Do their failings become huge and inescapable because we expect impossible perfection from them? Or is it their imperfections that allow them to become the role model in the first place? Did someone who knew that the individual had issues choose them as a role model expecting that somehow, the result would be different this time?
I donít know what the answers are, but I wish we wouldnít berate the dead for having not lived up to some indefinable standard. Letís choose role models based on the whole person and not the surface of them. I think that means that we mustnít idolize people we donít actually know without reading about them in the tabloids. And it means that if they are only public figures but not otherwise living their lives in a way we would emulate, letís admire their gifts but not call them role models. Letís let the poor things own their own lives without being responsible for ours by implication.