The problem with pedestals

Over the last three years I have thought a lot about pedestals.  For most of my adult life I have sat perched on top of one.   Though I never minded the view from above, I also never felt quite comfortable being up there.  I didn’t have a fear of heights.  I didn’t mind the shorter supply of oxygen.  I just knew, deep down, I didn’t belong up there.  Definitely not that high.

I’m not even sure how I got on one to begin with.  I think it began with a simple compliment.  With that, someone put me up there.  And then someone else agreed I should be there and raised my platform a bit.  Then another person affirmed that position and it grew some more.  I was just doing my job and being me but the next thing I know – I’m up in the clouds of esteem.   The pedestal perks were certainly enjoyable and, at the time, it seemed like a harmless seat.  Unfortunately, I did not understand how pedestals work.  Or how they grow.  Or how dangerously high they can get.  Or how you get off of one.  Today I understand the problem with pedestals much more clearly.   I have the scars to prove it.

On December 21st, 2008, I awoke sitting atop a rather high pedestal.  It had been growing for years and had reached a rather impressive pinnacle.  By the time my head hit the pillow on December 22nd, I was about as low to the ground as you could come.  That tends to be the nature of pedestals.  One day they can hold you up.  The next day they can bring you down.

Here are a few generic facts about pedestals and their inherent problems.  If you’re on one, be careful.  Or better yet, start climbing down.  If you are placing others on them, stop it.  You are doing yourself and everyone else a disservice, especially the person on top.

  1. Pedestals are invisibly built.   Most people who are placed on pedestals rarely know they are being placed on one.  They are usually just doing their job or serving in the way they normally serve, and over time – their status begins to rise.  Unlike the hero who pulls a child out of a burning building and receives a sudden rise on the pedestal, many people have theirs built invisibly, behind the scenes, almost imperceptible to the naked eye.  They seem like a good husband.  They seem like the perfect mother.  They seem like the model coach, teacher or pastor.  And in the beginning, they are.  But because the pedestal grows invisibly, they really cannot see when it is growing, how it is growing or that they are even rising on top of it.
  2. Pedestals grow subtly.  It’s bad enough that a pedestal is built invisibly.  The fact that it grows subtly is much more sinister.  Overnight fame is easy to detect.  One day you are normal, the next day the news media is outside your door.   But for most of us who have ever been on a pedestal, that’s not how it works.  For most pedestal dwellers, they cannot detect their ascent particularly since the growth is slow and feels so right and natural.  A person always has a hard time seeing his own growth.  It takes the out-of-town Aunt to say something like “Wow!  You’ve gotten so tall!” to put things into perspective.  In the same way, people subtly grow pedestals through endless innocent compliments.  They feed it via constant harmless accolades.  Those sitting on top love the flattery.   They enjoy the praise, especially when it is sincere and heartfelt.  “Thank you for the influence you have on my son.” or “The way you teach is amazing.” etc.   Whether it is praising a teacher, pastor, coach, athlete or politician – the pedestal subtly grows with each added comment or recognition.  The recipient of the praise must be extra diligent to make sure the compliments do not go to his head.  The givers of the praise must be extra diligent to remind themselves that the person they are praising is still human, capable of disappointment.
  3. Pedestals are fun to ride.  Who doesn’t like attention?  Who doesn’t appreciate hearing how they are appreciated?  Everyone enjoys a nice compliment and loves to hear the good they are doing.  The only thing better than being praised is to be praised publicly.   When someone gives a good speech, they love to hear it was a good speech.  When someone bakes a good cookie, they love to hear it was a good cookie.   Praise & compliments are wonderful.  And because the feeling is so good on top of the pedestal, it makes it all the more tempting to stay.  As Thomas Fuller once said, “Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.”
  4. Pedestals distort the view from below.   For the most part, our friends are just like us.  They enjoy what we enjoy.   We share the same virtues and we share the same vices.  People on pedestals are different.  We place them there for that very reason – because they are different from us.  We hold them in a higher esteem.  We think highly of them and therefore feel the need to elevate them above us.  They have usually excelled in a certain area  of importance and therefore we must lift them above the rest of us common folk.   We may not articulate it this way, but this is how we feel.  The problem is – the people on top of the pedestals are still people.   They still get dressed the same way you get dressed.  They still struggle with the same thing you struggle with.  They may be great at one thing and deserve recognition for it, but they also need to stay “grounded.”   Lifting them up and placing them on pedestals does the very opposite of helping them stay grounded.  We place them (oftentimes without their knowledge) on a pedestal and then raise it (oftentimes without their knowledge) to unfair heights.   In our mind, they are where they belong.  In their mind, they love the view and the perks but can’t figure out how they got up there or how to get down.   All they know is that they have to do whatever it takes to stay since getting down does not appear to be a safe option.   Too many people will be disappointed if they leave their lofty nest.  From the ground, we cannot see their lives clearly or realistically.  From our lowly vantage point, we can no longer relate to their different atmospheric pressure.  By contrast, they are too high up to see real life clearly.  If they were to admit a struggle, very few are in ear-shot to hear it.  And to be honest, most on the ground don’t want to hear it.  After all, we put them there because they are not like us.   They are better than us.  Stronger than us.  More Christian than us.   Whatever the reason, we needed someone to look up to and we chose them.  The problem is, they need someone to talk to, confide in and too few of us are available.  Even fewer understand the pedestal climate or culture they live in.  So, they remain where they are – silently struggling.  We remain where we are, lifting them higher.   Eventually, the pressure of the pedestal can no longer hold the person or our image of them.
  5. There is only one way off a pedestal.   This is the hardest lesson to learn about pedestals.  Having said that, it is also a lesson that is learned in one painful second.   The only way off is to fall.  The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall.  The harder the fall, the greater the damage.  When a parent falls, the whole family is affected.  When a teacher or coach falls, the whole school is affected.  When a pastor falls, the whole church is affected.  When a President falls, the whole country is affected.  Though the person falling feels the brunt of the impact, they are not alone in the hurting process.   The people on the ground are crushed.  How could my hero fall off the pedestal that I placed him on?   He had been on there for so long without a problem.  She had been up there so high without incident.  Now they are shattered on the ground into unrecognizable pieces and we don’t know how to help or even what to say.   Most of the time, we just ignore them in their broken pile of misery and move on with our common little lives.   We tend to shun a fallen star.   Even though we helped not only place them there but keep them there, we are mad/disappointed that they fell.

I’ve been on both sides of the pedestal.  I know what it’s like to fall off and shatter.  I had to learn how to pick up the pieces and try to rebuild a life.  It’s not easy.  You often do it alone.  The masses that placed you there are usually nowhere to be found when you need them.  Everyone loves you on the pedestal.  Only your true friends love you in your broken mess.

I also know what it is like to place people on a pedestal and be an accomplice in raising it.  I know what it’s like to watch them fall and stare in disbelief at the devastation of their lives.   Because of my background and past experiences, I never watch for very long.  I quickly roll up my sleeves, get into their lives and get my hands dirty with the restoration process.   I have to.  I know their pain and I know how few people will be there for them since they are no longer considered “useful”.   Fallen people need help rising again.   Their injuries are not easily mended.  It can take years to get them back to a healthy state.

The truth is, only one Person belongs on a pedestal.  It’s not your Mom, Dad or children’s coach.  It’s not your teacher, congressmen or favorite athlete.  It’s not your children, spouse or pastor.   Only One is worthy of the perch and has already proven He can never fall or fail.

He traded a pedestal throne for a pedestal cross… and then took the fall for us – so we don’t have to pretend to be on pedestals anymore.

  • “Pride goes before a fall, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” – Proverbs 16:18
  • “Humble yourself in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” – James 4:10
  • “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” – I Peter 5:6-7