Feet of Clay

All of us are flawed.

The term ‘feet of clay’ is derived from a troubling dream experienced by the King Nebuchadnezzar, in which he saw an awe-inspiring statue. As recounted in the biblical book of Daniel, the statue’s head was made of gold, while its arms and chest were composed of silver. Its lower torso and thighs were composed of bronze and its calves of Iron. Finally, the feet of the statue were made of a mix of iron and clay. It was this clay that was the undoing of the statue, making it so unstable that, when struck by a stone, the entire sculpture collapsed, all its components fragmenting, until they were blown away like chaff on the wind.

The term feet of clay has come to mean a character flaw or personal weakness in those we consider to be giants among humankind; the great and the mighty; guides and mentors. But the simple truth is that all of us are flawed. We all have feet of clay.

The American author Ambrose Bierce, once defined a saint as “A dead sinner revised and edited”. And so are our heroines, our heroes, our leaders; all those supposedly superior beings. They are all “revised and edited”.

Winston Churchill brilliantly led Britain through World War II. But he openly despised Muslims. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner, as was George Washington. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony partnered with white supremacists in their struggle to obtain the vote for women. Abraham Lincoln’s administration implemented appalling policies toward Native Americans. Both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., had extramarital affairs. Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Dying provided little to no pain management or proper hygiene, so that people suffered needlessly—suffering which she praised.

Peel back the layers on the face of every acclaimed human being, and you will find the shocking reality lurking just beneath the fiction. Often, it is not very pretty; frequently, it is downright ugly.

They were, they are, just like you and me.

There are no saints. Yet saints we demand. We beg for an image, a template, which we can emulate, but then cast the pattern angrily aside when we discover that it is made of shreddable paper rather than polished silver. We forget that a pattern is just that—a design, an outline, an example—rather than a requisite. We fail to understand that we can emulate the best of what we see in others, while forgiving their flaws.

And we also do not live within their minds. Did Lincoln or Jefferson or Washington, in the privacy of their own thoughts, deplore the disparity of their publicly-stated views with their personal actions? Did each question his own motivation or bias and belief? How did JFK and MLK reconcile their high-flown aspirations with the infidelity that caused their spouses so much pain? If our guides and gurus had feet of clay, did they also have psyches cringing from their own contradictions? Did they suffer doubt, or confusion, or shame?

In most cases, we will never know. Rarely are we allowed a glimpse into the workings of another’s mind, and when we do achieve such observation, it is incomplete. Mother Teresa, for instance, never retracted any of her statements about the nobility suffering, or the behavior that led her treat the pain of cancer patients with nothing more than aspirin. Yet in her private diaries she expressed spiritual desolation and a complete disconnect from God. Did she ever link her own spiritual emptiness to her belief in the nobility of pain or her personal responsibility for unnecessary suffering?

Jesus, it is recorded, cleansed the Temple of the money changers: driving them out with a scourge, knocking over tables and kicking over chairs, shouting condemnation. His rage, I was always taught, was justified, because he was acting on behalf of virtue; driving out evil. Even in childhood, I laughed at that claim. I’d seen a lot of rage in my family, and I recognized it. However praise-worthy his motivations, he just got mad. Just plain angry and disgusted; simply raging mad.

He lost his temper.

He walked on feet of clay.

When he was done—when the sheep and oxen had stampeded out, the pigeons flown away—when the money-changers had fled, and their cash boxes been poured out—did he, his chest heaving, look around and say to himself, “I should have done this differently. This was inexcusable behavior. How can people trust me if I lose my temper this way? Will they ever forgive me?”

Those who recorded his history, if not forgiving him, did at least excuse Christ for his out of control behavior. Perhaps in that we can find our answer: If we cannot forgive our guides and mentors who have walked, just as we do, on feet of clay, we can at least acknowledge their humanity, and our common failings, and grant them our pardon and excuse.

Enjoyed this essay? Then you might also like “Tough Love for the Prodigal Son”, which you can locate in the Archives dated March 30, 2018.