If You Think You Are Strong

Scandals of any kind can make for salacious afternoon gossip if not for an animated Reddit discussion or a good, lucrative documentary or podcast. I try to steer clear of true crime podcasts. Not necessarily because they are of lesser quality, no, but precisely because they can be utterly irresistible, especially when they are researched and narrated well, and I fear that I may not be able to listen to the other ones that I find to be educational, nourishing, and thought-provoking that can feed both my soul and brain. But about three weeks ago a certain crime podcast made it to the top chart, and I surrendered to the catchy synopsis and the five-star glowing reviews. The podcast was about a 37-year-old mother who is currently serving her time in prison for scamming hundreds of people including her friends and church community by faking cancer for seven years. Shortly after that, I came across another documentary about a young pastor who ascended to fame within a short amount of time partly by virtue of his athletic physique and magnetic personality but only to come crashing down after his multiple extramarital affairs came to light. Of his many messages and admonitions, one that he repeatedly mentioned was the importance of abstaining from sex before marriage.

Upon hearing or reading about scandals like these, it’s all too easy to assume the moral high ground and look down on these people. In fact, I often wonder if one of the reasons why many of us, including myself, are drawn to stories like these is because they make us feel good about ourselves. Because our brains have been conditioned to automatically categorize people as either good or bad rather than seeing everyone as flawed, transgressions of such magnitude can easily cause us to view our flaws and shortcomings as small, insignificant, and inconsequential. And we can easily find solace in the thought of — “Phew, I have my own issues but at least I am not as morally bankrupt as those people.” Now, am I suggesting that because humans are flawed by their nature, they ought to be excused for the pain and harm they are causing others? Absolutely not. But as someone deeply interested in examining why people do what they do, I believe the root causes of behaviors such as the one I described above are not solely individual problems; they are also societal issues. First, as I stated earlier, I’m of the view that humans are born with the potential of exhibiting both commendable and deplorable behaviors. We are capable of showing mercy and vindictiveness, generosity and greed, benevolence and malice.

Anyone who says otherwise isn’t from this world. Further, we are also masterful at rationalizing and justifying our objectionable behaviors: “Yes, I am cheating but it’s for the greater good. Plus, doesn’t everyone engage in some sort of disreputable behavior to make it in life?”

Second, we are also born with a need to be loved, matter, and belong. However, sadly from the moment we come into this world, it seems as though our worth is determined on the basis of our family’s socioeconomic status, the country into which we are born or our immutable characteristics like our gender, intelligence, and physical attributes. Yes, we have always been told that we are valuable just for being human. But it’s only a matter of time before we realize that it’s a lie. Our teachers rank us before we even start to speak in full sentences. The message is clear: we are as favored and loved as our ranks. Simultaneously, we also see the world bowing down to the mighty and the wealthy while the meek and the weak continue to get trampled upon by life and unjust systemic forces. Again, the message is crystal clear: wealth and power will get you what you want. If we had lived in a wholesome world in which every human’s innate needs to be loved and valued were unequivocally met, maybe just maybe, most people would not have resorted to greed or malfeasance.

Returning to the scammer and the pastor I mentioned earlier, I don’t know if their appetite for money, fame, and power originated from wanting to meet their deepest yearnings — love and connection. I also wonder if their inability to detect and correct their flawed thoughts or motives in their early stages was driven by the fear of being labeled as bad, both by themselves and others. As a result, they continued to deceive themselves. Regardless, while it’s tempting to glorify some people and demonize others, the wise person, I believe, is one who acknowledges her strength but also recognizes her fallibility and vulnerability, just like any other human being.

By Feven Seifu

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