The reason we return to 2,000 year old Greek tragedies is that they tell timeless stories about real people charting the rise and fall of life, their giant successes and their equally giant failures. Recently I saw Antigone, the plot of which might well have been lifted from the prattle of pundits on the 24 hour news channels. Antigone is the eternal conflict of personal versus corporate interests. No one would move an inch, so both sides in this play lost at the final curtain. (Greeks loved unhappy endings.)
Greek tragedy explored the presence of a flaw in all men. In prominent men we see this played out on the world stage. But it also applies to us. That flaw, almost without exception, is also our greatest gift. And because it is our gift we are unaware that it may cause us to fail. Can we recognize it, can we right ourselves when we slip, can we anticipate our faults?
I learned in my thirties that I have a Gift of Faith. But it became for me a giant trap. I believed the promises of God – every last one of them, and then believed God for things He did not intend and had not promised – at least to me. Or my timing was off – by years. God promises a lot of things, but not to all people all the time! My gift became my downfall. My graduate school student friends had a term for it – Immaculate Assumptions.
A novice gambler wins big at the tables, and before long he is losing equally large amounts. Will he take his winnings on the first or second success and go home? High levels of success in one area indulges us the luxury of assuming we are going to do everything else well. In this example we can think of literally a host of people who fill the bill.
In a business where the bottom line crowd rules to check our self-zeal, or where there is a Board of Directors to put on the brakes, we make fewer management missteps. And in those cases, and we all know them, where the Board of Directors is the letter head kind, in other words ineffective, rubber-stampers, you may well find the organization tanking. I did a web site for a group that had been selected for its willingness to go along with the highly effective manager; but when a rotten director took over, everything collapsed. Businesses that have dramatically failed have, at some point, failed to heed or listen to the voices of restraint; I think of Enron’s tragic collapse.
The fragile lives of the famous are easy to analyze. But our own selves may be quite another matter. The gift IS the trap. If you are a famous newspaperman will you be asked to throw a football game? I daresay not. You will be tempted to write a phony story, knowing because of your stellar reputation for honest reporting you will be completely believed no matter how fictional. The basketball player will be asked to throw a game of course but not cheat on his taxes where he has little expertise.
Businessmen out of town in hotels are easy prey for women with only trouble in mind, simply because cisitors think they are invincible, and on the company travel budget at that. These examples are obvious but the principles can apply to the inner man as well. A contemporary of mine was known as “the nicest person you would ever want to meet.” Eternally popular and good looking, on the Board of Vespers, considered politically talented, but to our shock he was arrested after laundering money in the Caribbean. He wanted to be everyone’s friend. There is a time when you should not be nice to the wrong people. He learned that in federal prison.
A Hollywood observer reflecting on the broken marriages that plague the entertainment community brought out this fact – stars are surrounded by people who constantly praise them. They do not have the balancing effect of honesty from anyone in their circle of friends who may not actually be friends. Sometimes those sycophants are paid a salary, others are merely basking in the light of reflected glory. Nevertheless, who is going to be the moderating voice? When we study the lives of total dictators such as Stalin, Hitler, Emperor Chin and Mao the same reality rears its head – total decision-making power leads to total failure.
Not only entertainers repeat their errors. I think of one political talk show host, another in education, another in music – all at the top of their game but unable to transfer the genius that got them to the top of one stage to the most basic of human decisions – the marriage – and all the while assuming that the genius itself could be transferred from one enterprise to another. These men – and they are almost always men – seem puzzled, even embittered by their failure. So they blame women. They have become unable to see themselves or accept correction.
Many famous people have multiple failed marriages. We may cite adultery or alcohol abuse or other externals but it happens all too often to be simply explained as addictions or misplaced energies. To have made that many bad decisions about selecting a mate is a red flag which we should be able to see.
The men in my family are super salesman; they can sell anything to anybody, but consider how easy it is when you are that confident in your gift to think that sales will never go down, and there you are stuck with credit cards bills up the kazoo. The Bible calls it “the deceitfulness of riches” and it applies to much more than money. Where we are rich – talent, looks, money, success – we can so easily be deceived. We have no trouble believing that we cannot do something – our experience is that indeed we can not do many things. But not so with our talents. Our riches are the trap.
The singer is the one tempted to take on too many tours and exhausting one night gigs, ruining his voice and his life in the process. The stock broker is a genius at picking winners but after the market slows, he starts “creative accounting” and eventually ends up facing the SEC. Famous cooks endorse products they know are 2nd rate buoyed up by great ratings and a fawning public.
The Greeks called it “hubris” the overbearing self confidence that leads to downfall, the core of tragedy. Obviously, you can’t have pride if there is no talent there! Greek tragedy is the story of pride that causes the fall in our lives. For the Greeks, those failures always had public consequences. Shamed ministers made headlines but most of the rest of us have at one time or had the thought – it can’t happen to me.
The scripture says, Examine yourself to see if you are in the faith.” We should not endorse the paralysis of analysis here, but we should to be checking who we are and where we are going all the time.
1. Can you think of friends who have made missteps because of their talents? What was it inside them that caused them to be ignorant of the trap they could fall into?
2. What is your gift? Has it caused you trouble? And how?
3. What kind of public hubris has brought political problems for the United States, or perhaps in your state or community?
4. Do you have someone in your life who loves you enough to tell you the truth? Or express caution when you are getting out of line?
5. How can you add accountability to your life if you are not married or under some kind of authority?