CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. Bernie Madoff. The list of fallen heroes goes on and on. And those are just the ones on the national scene.
How many of us -- and our friends, family members and colleagues -- experience the same thing on a smaller scale? And what toll does it take?
Having to live up to a certain image every day, especially if it's not authentic, can rob us of our life's energy. When you're on that treadmill, though, it can be very difficult to jump off.
"People lie to protect their self-image," says Robert Feldman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. "Once they're in a lie, they're in it. They live in it, and they justify hurting others to protect the lie -- because they don't see any way out."
When the spotlight shines on cases like Armstrong's, principles of ethics and integrity arise. Timing and motives are questioned. We become indignant -- or, perhaps, develop a "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude, based on our own life experiences.
If we have a "villain scale" and the continuum runs from personal indiscretions on one end to Machiavellian schemes at the other extreme, where do we place those who have stumbled along the way?
Do extramarital affairs of public officials like Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and Bill Clinton rank differently than the animal cruelty antics of Michael Vick? And when a number of people are adversely affected by actions of folks like Armstrong and Madoff, are they held to a stricter standard? Do ruined careers and reputations count for less than ruined fortunes?
While it's not up to each of us to establish justice, parents and teachers face the dilemma of how to portray such actions and their consequences to our children. The news media have a responsibility to accurately report. And the general populace has the freedom to form its own opinions. Then there's the cycle (no pun intended) of forgiveness and redemption.
I've been intrigued by the events surrounding the Armstrong episode, particularly since it encompasses both a sports hero and a medical icon. My husband, John, is a cyclist, and we've followed all the Tour de France races even to the extent of taping individual stages. I've probably seen more of the Pyrenees and Alps this way than I'll see in the conventional travel sense. We have Armstrong's book "It's Not About the Bike" on our bookshelf.
Wearing my other hat as a counselor, I've been deeply engaged in the psychological components and the human behavioral side of this drama from the repeated doping denials over the years to his confession in a recent Oprah Winfrey interview.
So how pervasive is lying as a part of our culture? "We all lie every day," Feldman observes. "We live in a culture where lying is quite acceptable."
An example by Feldman that stands out for me is that we encourage our children from an early age to feign appreciation for a gift they really don't like in order to spare a relative's feelings. Well, that's just good manners, right? And it may be splitting hairs to say the appreciation is for the gesture of the gift, not the gift itself. See how messy this stuff gets?
We often rationalize, "Everybody's doing it" or "It's for a good cause."
Body language is another indicator of genuineness. The body doesn't lie, and there's an entire area of study centered on physical cues that dispute verbal statements.