There’s a difficult point in our lives where we realize that no one, no matter how much we respect them, is infallible. The reason this is so difficult is that we’ve held certain people to impossible standards and then we’re disappointed when they fail to meet them – even if we’re not perfect, we want to believe someone can be.
It happens with your parents. You grow up around these mythic figures who know everything, but then one day you start spotting the cracks in the veneer and see their mistakes and it can make you unreasonably furious (and it doesn’t help that this usually happens around a time in your life when you’re more prone to unreasonable fury than normal anyway). But true maturity is recognizing that they weren’t fallen gods who failed to deliver on a divine promise; they were ordinary people trying their best and figuring it out as they went, same as you. And if you reach that level of maturity, it means they probably did a pretty great job.
It happens with your living idols. You see someone at their very best in their athletic performance or their business acumen or their political convictions, and then you start to see that outside of that very narrow spotlight they’ve got messy, difficult lives, just like you. They make bad choices and do bad things and fail even at the good things a lot of the time. But that doesn’t mean the good can’t outweigh the bad. Good deeds don’t absolve you of bad ones and they’re not an excuse, but if a person messes up and grows and learns and even pays penance for the mistake I think we can let their good deeds stand on their own.
It happens with past heroes. There are a lot of statues in the world, and if we dig around inside the flesh and blood that bore those visages we’ll find, without exception, some kind of rotten jerk in some sphere or another. Some were far more bad than good, some were far more good than bad, but no one was all of one or the either. We don’t necessarily owe those people respect just for their good deeds and can (and should!) admonish the ones that were bad. But that doesn’t mean we have to disrespect the good deeds themselves. We can respect a noble act, independent of the person – however ignoble they might have been.
It happens with mentors. It happens with bosses. It happens with significant others. People are human – they have human flaws. At their best, they do incredible things. We need those incredible things, and we need them whether you do ten incredible things before breakfast or whether you’re a rotten jerk your whole life and you pull out just one incredible thing right at the end. We don’t have to ignore flaws – in fact, we should pay close attention to them. Remind ourselves that we all have them. Engage with them. Work on them, try to fix them, strive to be better. Leave a better world.
No one is infallible. If that means you don’t idolize anyone – good. Let humans be humans. Celebrate wins. Enjoy good deeds. Emulate virtue, and learn more about it. Don’t try to force people to be infallible, for you’ll chase away great merit.