The Power of Bad Examples

“Remember: No matter how bad you are, you’re not totally useless. You can still be used as a bad example.” ~Unknown

We all fall short. We stumble, trip and fall with startling regularity. Most of us get back up, make amends, try to do better only to find ourselves stumbling over our feet again.

This post is not about throwing stones. I stumble and fall as much as the next guy. But it is about learning.

It’s about taking what others have done and learning from their mistakes, avoiding the hidden traps of malicious thought and bad attitude and screwed up priorities and shady values and misbehavior.

Gandhi vs Hitler?

It’s easy to look to a Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela to see how best to live. But sometimes a bad example is just as revealing as a good one. Good examples show us elevated paths and right steps; bad examples help identify dead-ends and the potholes and hidden cliffs just beyond the tangles brush of life.

Both are useful.

It is by peeking into the lives of those who have tripped very hard and very publicly that we can often discover what precipitated the fall. By seeing the cause of other people’s misery, we are instructed onto different paths, or to travel the same path very differently.

We are then armed against pernicious cultural attitudes and insidious beliefs that can slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, corrode values and compromise character and undermine happiness.

Not by Comparison

My point here is not to compare one bad example against another or to draw moral equivalencies. Racist murderers are infinitely worse than self-destructing teenaged divas. They don’t belong on the same moral page or even in the same moral library.

Still, their lives are helpful to us as we try to figure out where the dangers are in our own personal growth and development.

Remember, bad ideas usually don’t hit us as torrential downpours. When that happens, we simply run indoors to escape the soaking. But when questionable ideas and bad habits gently settle on us as a soft drizzle, we hardly realize we’re getting wet until our clothes are soaked.

It is with that in mind that I offer the following …

8 Lessons from 8 Bad Examples

#1: Jim Bakker

The Example: Popular televangelist (with his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker) who’s sex scandal and accounting fraud led to divorce, a prison term and crocodile tears of confession (after getting caught, of course) on national television.

The Lesson: Hypocrisy is worse than the weakness the lie is meant to hide.

To pretend to be what you’re not is to live a life of pretense. It is to live insincerely and inauthentically, trapped under the burden of a lie. It is artificial living in a false world with pretended reality.

Trustworthiness is traded for appearance. Honesty for pretense. Honor for a house of cards that is easily blown down by even the most gentle breeze. A life of hypocrisy is a forfeiture the joy and happiness that an unencumbered life provides.

#2: Tonya Harding

The Example: Olympic figure skater allegedly involved in hiring a thug to break the leg of her #1 rival during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the qualifying tournament for the 1994 Winter Olympics.

The Lesson: Goals without standards are to be feared more than standards without goals.

Blind ambition can destroy those blinded by the sparkle of potential success. When values become obstacles to what you want, it’s time to slow down and reexamine the soul in the mirror.

I’ve seen it over and over again in my classroom. Students who are obsessed with getting into a particular school, keeping a particular GPA or class rank, often sacrifice their character and honor for the sake of a few points they steal on a test or quiz or homework assignment as they cheat their way to academic prominence.

But what are you left with when you’ve sold your honor for a few points? There will always be the sting of knowing you’re a fraud, a cheat, someone who cut corners to “win” the race.

There will always be “reasons” we tell ourselves that justify little compromises of character here and there. But once corners are cut, it is easier to cut again and again and again, until little is left of what was once your self-respect and good name.

#3: OJ Simpson

The Example: Former football star turned murderer, killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman.

The Lesson: Character is Immortal. Wealth and Fame are not.

The Juice will never again be primarily thought of for his athletic prowess or comedic acting abilities (remember Police Squad?). He will never again be remembered with football in hand. Instead, we have images of hands being forced into blood-soaked gloves and smug expressions and the weeping family and friends of dead victims.

The tragedy is obviously most horrific in the loss of Ron and Nicole. But another tragedy is in the loss of everything OJ once had: Wealth. Fame. Respect. Adoration. Access. A seemingly great life.

But in the end, he has nothing. No wealth. No respect. Access to nothing but the inside of a prison. Sure he hired those who could confuse a jury, but his high-paid attorneys could do nothing about the character inside the name. And that character led OJ to other crimes and other trials and lost liberty.

#4: Britney Spears

The Example: Crazy behavior. Bursts of umbrella-wielding violence. Shaved head. Drugs and drug rehabilitation centers. Erratic behavior. Loss of custody of her children. Breakdowns. Hospitalization. Psychiatric evaluation. And who knows what’s next.

The Lesson: Fame and fortune without a solid emotional and moral foundation are steps to crazyville.

Britney grew up in the spotlight. She grew up confusing fame with substance, popularity with importance, media coverage with significance and screaming fans with love. She came to believe that she was entitled to things ordinary people know they are not.

Without the emotional and moral grounding she needed, without stability and wisdom and an internal equilibrium to fall back on, fame and fortune sent her into an erratic orbit around a violent emotional scream through her own strange outer space.

#5: Roy Bryant

The Example: Murdered 14-year-old Emmitt Till in 1955 for “flirting” with his wife.

The Lesson: Race-based thinking is poisonous.

Race-based thinking is to put stock in the accident of blood. It is to assume superiority by virtue of nothing. It is self-acceptance by group affiliation, self-esteem by color, self-identity by DNA.

It is a poison that robs life of joy and corrupts values and religion and turns stupidity into wisdom and vice into virtue. It is the doctrine of limitation. It is self-importance by virtue of birth, not for having actually done anything to merit it.

Racial thinking leads to Final Solutions and shackled ankles and segregated lives and puts artificial limits on human potential. Justifying bad behavior by virtue of the race of the person the bad behavior is aimed at is a self-inflicted wound to the soul.

It inflates the accident of race above character and personality and human excellence. It’s a passive esteem, born of nothing, producing nothing, being nothing.

Hatred of any kind burns black in the heart. Hate limits and reduces and restricts and shackles and enslaves its possessor within the bars of self-abuse. It is the act of self-mutilation from the inside out.

So reject the deadening belief that blood or DNA or race or genetics have anything of value to say about who we or they or anyone is. That kind of thinking robs will and choice and freedom and liberty of their true impact.

#6: Michael Jackson

The Example: Holder of the twin titles of the King of Pop, and Emperor of the Bizarre: Bleached skin. Mutilated features. A strange sort of loneliness in the midst of a retinue of sycophants. Sleeplessness. Law suits. Addiction. Death.

The Lesson: Living in bubbles are bad for your health.

Isolation from others, from reality, from a sense of one’s own fallibility and relative smallness under an immense universe, likely makes it pretty easy to lose sight of the ground. Michael floated far and wide into a bizarre world. His behavior was often inexplicable and showed just how detached he was from the rest of us.

There is value in living amongst the normal. There’s value in having friends who tell us when we’re being jerks or acting strange or out of control. Reality checks cause us to reconnect with reality.

But when we live in bubbles (whether imprisoned in them, insulated in an on-line community, or created by massive amounts of wealth and a retinue of yes-men), we lose an essential part of who we are, that part that is kept in check by the rest of a caring community of honest people who love you for who you are and who you can be, not for a pay check and what they can get while riding your coattails.

#7: Jimi Hendrix

The Example: Guitar legend who overdosed in a purple haze of alcohol and barbiturates, prematurely dying at the age of 27.

The Lesson: Addiction Limits Potential and Derails Goals.

Whether addicted to drugs or alcohol or tobacco or sex or gossip or TV, addictions divert us from who we could become and what we have the potential of doing. They compromise our better selves and undermine what is most important.

Addiction robs us of self-respect and dignity and freedom. We’re bound by impulse and enslaved by craving and often find ourselves falling into a dark sinkhole of our own creation.

#8: Richard Nixon

The Example: President turned criminal who became the only man to ever quit the presidency in an successful attempt to escape impeachment proceeding.

The Lesson: Power without restraint is a dangerously intoxicating drink.

Power tends to corrupt and the more of it we wield, the more corrupting it can be when we do not have enough moral restraint to use it justly. Even when we start out with noble motives, the improper use of power for noble ends corrupts the process and therefore discolors the ends as well. Reputation is lost and perspective is skewed and self-image is made to appear like something it’s not.

Another lesson here is the fear Nixon had that his enemies were always conspiring against him. That fear, lacking moral restraint, drove him into illegal activities to keep his eyes on those he distrusted. The second lesson is that fear left unchecked can corrupt the roles we play and discredit the authority we wield.

Afterthoughts …

We learn from both good and bad examples. We learn what to do from good examples and what to avoid doing from those who have made a mess of their lives, even if only for a time. Good examples inspire us onward. Bad examples are warning signs in the street of life, keeping us from driving into ditches.

I’ve always told my daughter to learn from our strengths, but also to learn from our weaknesses. Our bad examples are just as instructive as our good ones.

And so it is with all parents … and neighbors and actors and athletes and politicians and historical figures. We are all some mix of good and bad examples. Follow the good. Learn from the bad. And become a better person for having both in your life.

I look forward to your thoughts in the comments …

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