"There's only one thing we love more than making perfectly normal people into idols," said Bernard as he looked at the Entertainment section of his newspaper.
"What is that?" I asked, as I looked at the ocean, eating my breakfast muffin.
"You're reading about Britney Spears again, are you?"
"Yes. Look at this poor girl. First they turn her into something she's not. Then they ping her for it - for being what's she not."
"She's a pretty woman," I said, watching an even prettier one jog by. I do enjoy the beach.
"She is that. But so? We have pretty women all over. People are desperately in need of other people and instead we give them idols, trying to pretend that these special people are different from anybody else. What utter nonsense is that?"
"Well, some idols are inspiring."
"Well, Mother Teresa comes to mind. Gandhi."
"Pshaw! Mother Teresa's life was a crisis of faith and she is held up as an example of faith. She was a model of helping the poor, but she embraced policies that kept women in places of subjection and poverty."
"You don't like Mother Teresa?" I asked, incredulous, stopped mid-bite by this bit of sacrilege.
"No! I loved Mother Teresa. It's just that she was a person. She was flawed. She had fears. She was indifferent to the disastrous effects of medieval policies."
"Another saint who was not a saint."
"Well, Freud obsessed about sex to the point that he offended people. Yet - particularly in the final decade or two of his life - he showed indifference to it. Didn't act on any sexual urges. Gandhi, by contrast, this toga-wearing saint, spent his final years sleeping nude with naked young women."
"He did?" At this point, I'm a little baffled. Confused. Perplexed. In other words, I'm back to my natural state when trying to understand people - Bernard in particular. "So you're saying that Gandhi and Mother Teresa shouldn't be role models?"
"No!" Bernard exploded. He's often upset but rarely angry. This time he is angry. He wagged his bagel at me. A small bit of cream cheese threatened to fly off and into my face. He was keeping my attention. "They are fabulous role models. But only if we tell people their whole story."
"So you think that young people should aspire to emulating Gandhi's sleeping habits?"
"No, you twit. Every one will have his own stupid, personal flaw. No need to adopt someone else's flaw, even if it's Gandhi's."
"I am really confused," I said, warily watching his bagel.
"Idols aren't role models," he said, flinging his hand back. The cream cheese flew in the opposite direction. I could now focus on what he said. "Idols don't have flaws. They just stand for things. Nobody can live a life like that. Idols are useless!"
"So tell kids that as an old man, Gandhi liked to lie nude with young women. Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God and still had the effrontery to be dogmatic about her beliefs. These are not flaws in the abstract. These are ugly flaws. But Gandhi helped to transform India and even better, he offered a model of passive rather than violent resistance. He was a wonderful role model. Mother Teresa gave her life to helping the poor. She was a wonderful role model. Flawed, they are even better role models."
"Why? Because flawed people need flawed role models. Otherwise they think that living a life that matters is for other people - perfect people who don't exist. Who can be that? This stupid search for perfection, for virtue, it just gets in the way of doing anything in life. We all do what we can in spite of who we are - not because we've somehow managed to become perfect and can now flutter about the planet waving wands. You do what you can. You don't waste all your effort on trying to be perfect, on trying to be an idol. That's utter nonsense. Go live a life. Do something honorable in spite of the fact that your life is riddled with dishonor, flaws, and the spiritual equivalent of farts."
"Are you supposed to be inspiring me? Talking about spiritual farts?"
"Life is too short. You don't have the time to become perfect first before you actually live it. There's a world to save out there."
"And idols can’t save it."
"The lesson of this little conversation?" Bernard leaned towards me, his large eyes actually bulging a bit. "There are no great people. There are only people who do great things."
"Wait. Last week you told me that nothing I do matters. Only people matter. Now this?"
"I never said that life would make sense. I just said that you should make sense of life."
At this point, I had officially lost track of what we were saying. Bernard is an old man, and has begun to have a little trouble with balance. As he was teetering on the thin line between utter nonsense and potential profundity, I decided it was best not to push him.