March 5, 2009

I'm Gettin' On My Soapbox

And I'm dragging Michael Phelps up with me.
It has occurred to me often, when people go on about role models, that "role model" is just another invention of society that needs to stop. (Jennie's Rules) The phrase is being used incorrectly.

Take Michael Phelps, for example. He is a man who swims really well, perhaps the finest swimmer of all time. If children or adults or fish admire him, it is most likely because of his medals or hard work or ambition or speed. In other words the role in which he excels. I'm thinking, people take on roles. Character is a whole nother thing.

After hearing yet another report of how his pot smoking is horrible because he's a role model, I logged onto my computer, went to Merriam-Webster and typed in Role model: A person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others. And this is the phrase that keeps crawling under my skin and wiggling around, since words tend to do that to me - in a particular role.

I'd like my kids to be able to discern the difference between being able to do something really well or being highly disciplined/intelligent/athletic/whatever and being a person whom others can trust and look up to in a moral or deeply meaningful sense. I also want them to clearly understand that there is a reason that we use the term "role model" and don't have a term that says we should do every single thing another human being does. Human beings (talk about stating the screamingly obvious) are not going to be perfect, win medals, be admirable or be model citizens, spiritual guides or teachers in every single aspect of their lives!
Who knows what Nobel Peace prize winning people do in the privacy of their own homes? Who knows how incredible writers treat their neighbors? There's Mother Theresa and then there's Muhammed Ali. There's Gandhi and then there's Nadia Comaneci. And how many more of those can you think of? Not many, because you run out of the first halves of those equations pretty quickly, while there are tons and tons of the second halves and even more people, like me, who don't even qualify for a spot in an equation like that. (Now, just for fun, imagine Mother Theresa in a boxing ring.)

Being strong and athletic and highly disciplined is great. Should Michael Phelps have quit on his goals a long time ago when he realized that he was probably not going to be that perfect in every other aspect of his life? Should we not have had the pleasure of seeing the amazing things our bodies are capable of if we were also going to have to bear the unspeakable pain of witnessing the same body inhale something our courts have called illegal? (And by "unspeakable pain," I mean, c'mon people, PLEASE!) He was stupid and wrong, he committed a crime. I don't mean anything cruel here but am I the only one who never ever assumed he was a mental giant? Or a moral leader? Or a model in any way shape or form apart from being someone who was hell-bent on winning swimming races? He's not a model for anything but swimming that I have observed, and if I allow or encourage my kids to entertain that thought for a minute I'm doing them a disservice, not Michael Phelps. He did what he could do well. And we watched. And it was amazing. And it's over. Frankly, watching him after the Olympics with his mother talking about how this finally gives him revenge, in a way, on children in his past who teased him growing up - THAT is what turned him into "just a good swimmer" in my book, not smoking pot at a party. I thought he and his mom were pretty small, smirking about past hurts just a day or so after he won 8 medals at the Olympics. For me, his character diminished as well as his winnings for our United States when he pointed back at some of the citizens he represented and said, "Na na na na na." No grace there.

If my kid wants to be an amazing swimmer, I'll say, "Hey! Take a look at this guy! He did some great things in the pool!" I'll point to Michael Phelps!

If my kid wants to be a mental giant or a moral human being or seek a model for how to be the best he can be, Phelps is probably not our guy.


rosemary said...

As far as I am are spot on. I have never had mental giants, athletic giants or any other kind of giant in my life nor have my kids. You need to be your own giant if you ever want to find achievement or excellence. You can learn from, use some of, and flat out copy some....but in the end you are you. OK, WV is itchbpat

Mom said...

You express my thoughts exactly