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Admiring What We Despise

[Religion News Service, April 2, 1996]

I think I see what the problem is. We admire Mother Teresa, and we despise Leona Helmsley.

This doesn’t immediately look like a problem, nor does it look like news. Mother Teresa has earned worldwide admiration of a higher order than the admiration we give to athletes, entertainers or other clever folks. Mother Teresa has earned her place by virtue of her virtue, her self‑sacrifice and devotion to the poor and dying. She exercises heroism on a massive scale. We admire her because she gives, she cares, she denies herself.

We’re not so fond of Leona Helmsley, the luxury‑hotel magnate famous for being caught in shady financial schemes and going to jail. Helmsley didn’t give, didn’t care, didn’t deny herself, and we get a smug pleasure in picturing her just desserts.

A current ad for Helmsley Hotels trades on this notoriety. "Say what you will, she runs a helluva hotel," it reads in tall stylish letters across the top. Below, there is a collage of scrumptious scenes in shades of mahogany and gold: dining rooms, mantel clocks, opera glasses, a suited doorman. If you placed a similar collage of scenes from Mother Teresa’s Calcutta hospice side by side with this, you would be able to tell the difference.

Another ad reads, "She knows people talk about her. She’ll even show you what they say." On the pale‑pink page are laid two letters to the personage unnamed in these ads, but referred to coyly as "You‑Know‑Who." The one from Mr. Hoity praises her concierge: "We’ll put him up against any concierge we have encountered in our European travels." The one from Miss Toity gushes over the aid she received when she dropped her lipstick on her white mink. You get the feeling that Helmsley’s clientele are not the sort who would just as soon pull their Chevy wagons into a Red Roof Inn.

The problem is this: We admire Mother Teresa, but we don’t want to be her. We may not want to be Leona Helmsley, but we wouldn’t mind being ensconced in the luxury she so cynically sells.

This is the fundamental ambivalence of our age. We long for heroism. We want a culture of giving and self‑sacrifice. We want compassion and caring. We want kindness to be showered on everyone from troubled youth to our fuzzy forest friends. We want a big, big heart, such as beats in the tiny frame of an aged nun in Calcutta.

Yet, with all this valuing of tenderness, life grows steadily more crass and brutal. For a long time this puzzled me. Then light dawned: We don’t want to do the caring. We want someone else to care for us. Virtue is a good thing for someone else to have; it will make them be nice to me.

Advertisers have discovered this; it seems as if every entity out there cares desperately about me, at the top of its lungs. My bank cares, my drycleaner cares, my car repairman cares. I see them pictured at work in TV ads, ordinary Joes in humble settings, glad to labor all night just so I’ll feel secure. "That’s what it’s all about," says the modest gal in an insurance ad.

Yet, for all these protestations, somehow I don’t feel particularly cared for.

We’re looking for grownups. We’re looking for heroes. We’re looking for them like a child lost in a shopping center looks for his mom.

But we don’t want to give or sacrifice or be heroes; we want to be children. We want to be happy. We have the right to be happy. The world owes us happiness. We’ll give our dollars to whoever promises, most convincingly, that they will put our happiness above their own. We want the guy who changes our oil to have the weary, tender face we once saw bending over the crib.

Trouble is, he wants the same face on his fast‑food waitress, who wants it on the grocery store cashier. We’re holding out for a hero, for our entitlement of happiness.

Mother Teresa may well have found a variety of happiness, but I don’t think it’s one we can even understand. It’s not the kind of happiness you have at the beginning of a long couch‑potato evening with plenty of beer and Fritos. But I don’t think she feels the kind of desolation we do when too many of those evenings come to their futile end.

The problem is, we admire Mother Teresa’s values, and we despise Leona Helmsley’s. The problem is, we earnestly want what we despise.

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