For every man there exists a bait which he cannot resist swallowing.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
When I was in my pre-teenage years, a very strange thing happened. The president of the United States - respected, revered, and a father figure to most everyone - acted in a dishonest way and abused his power. It was shocking and disheartening. We were accustomed to our celebrities misbehaving, although it seemed, as a whole, we wanted to reserve the news of their indiscretions for whispers and short news articles in special publications. The fall of our 37th president, however, was out there, big and full blown for everyone to see. As teenagers, we weren’t sure how to interpret this. We had grown up with the Vietnam War and the Cold War, a time when politicians were being accused of lying to us on a daily basis. Unfortunately, we were faced with the unhappy conclusion that people we respected and counted on would lie and cheat. (I'm sure we aren't the first generation in the history of man to have to face that.)
Since that time, we have become a nation, perhaps even a world, which loves to expose the wrong doings of the rich, powerful, and famous. Perhaps it’s to help us forget about our own indecencies. Perhaps it eases our jealousy. Regular people do naughty things all the time. Over the course of my life, I have been entrusted with the secrets of many family members who presented themselves self-righteously and yet bore the personal history of those human weaknesses capable of raising an eyebrow. I hold those secrets like a treasure chest, not sharing them with anyone who would delight in them, but saving them as potential parables for conversation with my wise and wonderful daughter, as did my own mother with me.
What is important, in my opinion, is that we learn from the public stories, as my daughter learns from my private ones. It seems that people who seek or accept power over others, in any form, frequently have an opening through which they cannot go without foundering. I’ve always called it the “power threshold.”
A power threshold can be reached at any level of influence or livelihood. One doesn't have to reach the astronomical heights of the world leader or the sports hero. I've seen people allow a taste of superiority to cause shameless or assuming behavior in many walks of life. One person could make it to a position of great power before becoming so filled with self importance that they lose their humility and get careless; another might fall after merely acquiring a humble trust in some modest capacity.
So what can we learn from it?
The obvious first lesson is that no one person is actually better than another. That is something that I think we can easily forget in the presence of someone charismatic and powerful.
Another lesson, the one that I most emphasize to my daughter, is the importance of remaining humble at all times and in every situation. If one can hold steady in the imperative acceptance of their humility, and be forever grateful for whatever blessings have been bestowed upon them, they will be less likely to behave in a way that appears as though they feel they are somehow more entitled than others.
And, perhaps the last lesson is just to understand the misery of being exposed. To understand that, though the world may seem to love one person more, it's not like a mother's love. It's a mercurial love. It stands on feet of sugar crystals ready to melt away when the reasons for that love become hotly tainted. To reach an accomplishment of any magnitude, great or small, and then lose what has been gained through actions that were no more than selfish whims must be a great punishment indeed. That's when saying over and over that the past is past and it's time to move on and deal with the present would be almost unbearable, I'm sure.
I am not convinced of Nietzsche's philosophy about a bait for every man, however. I believe that the power threshold of any individual is set by that individual and doesn't lie in waiting like a hidden fox trap. If we want to, we can achieve any state of greatness and always remain humble and never take the bait. Indeed, perhaps there are those of us for which no bait even exists. I'd like to think so. I'd like to make it so.