Reading about General Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell and General Allen’s voluminous correspondence with Jill Kelley – and their ignominious fall from grace – brings to mind the Egyptian myth, Osiris. He was killed and dismembered, and each of the 14 pieces of his body was buried in a different place. His wife Isis found all the parts and put them back together. Then Osiris came back to life, and they conceived a child together.
Later, I’ll explain what this myth can teach us about this latest “sex and power” scandal, which signifies more than just different views about affairs and adultery among high-profile people. One the one hand, some contend that adultery among military personnel is a personal matter, as foreign policy and military analyst Thomas Ricks said in a recent interview. In fact, Ricks argues in The Gamble that the significant issue for the military is the failure and decline of leadership. But others are morally offended by what they see as personal character flaws behind the sex scandal, and that such behavior indicates poor judgment on the part of leaders, as well.
But step back: I think this scandal is just a more extreme, titillating version of deceptions and lies that many people maintain in their public behavior, at the expense of private truths. For some, the chasm between public lies and private truths is driven by unrecognized emotional issues and conflicting desires, perhaps rationalized or unconscious. But for many others, the accumulation of rewards and recognition proves so intoxicating that they drunkenly walk into unethical or self-destructive actions.
Recent research suggests that people who anticipate feeling guilty about a possible ethical transgression are less likely to commit it. Perhaps so. But high levels of success and power in business, politics, sports or entertainment can strengthen and fuel self-centeredness, at the very least.
Some tumble from positions of power and social rank when their power lust or need for applause is constantly reinforced. That is, some have shaky ethics or poor self-control to begin with. Or narcissistic tendencies can become strengthened and intensified by increasing power and recognition. Being surrounded by people telling you how great you are can fuel and strengthen nascent narcissism, like pouring gasoline onto a small fire.
Moreover, when you’re under constant public scrutiny and exposure, a sense of entitlement can accrue — an attitude of “I can take what I want, because I can.” And, a belief that you’re immune to consequences can grow. In fact, research shows that higher levels of testosterone, typical in aggressive, narcissistic, “Type-A” personalities, stifle the natural capacity for empathy. That’s visible in people who use others for their own self-centered ends.
Surrounded by sycophants, self-control or judgment may weaken in the face of an opportunity for a sexual fling, especially if one’s experience of sexuality is linked with power and domination. In fact, some research suggests that, as people rise in power, they’re more likely to commit adultery. And increasingly, that includes women.
On the milder end of the spectrum, private-public gaps may relate to personal values, needs, or longings. Conflicts can erupt in intimate relationships, as I recently wrote regarding “transparency;” or in careers, or business. Whether a politician, sports star, entertainer, clergyman, or an average Joe, you might present yourself in one way in your public role, but actually feel or behave differently, in private.
You can become socially conditioned into a public persona that comports with what you’ve learned indicates mastery, control and maturity. That image might reflect the imperatives from parents or parent figures. And your talents can open pathways to success that also meet with parental approval. The latter might even include the kinds of people you should relate to, based on the parents’ or the extended family’s expectations or traditions.
But that path may not quite mesh with your own values or desires. The person you’re morphing into, publicly, may not be in synch with the person you are, privately. Resentment and feelings of self-confinement may build. Fears and insecurities may feel incompatible with the image you’re maintaining and receiving accolades for.
The end result is feeling entrapped in your life, in your career, relationships or both. Many describe feeling caught between elusive longings for something different, more purposeful, as opposed to settling for what they’ve become. You can feel trapped by circumstance, comfort or just being unable to envision alternative paths in life. If increasing guilt or shame on the inside combines with increasing success or adulation on the outside, the gaps between the different “parts” of yourself can intensify until the center no longer holds.
For some, the personal-private gap will erupt in self-destructive ways when, unconsciously, the person wants to subvert the whole enterprise that he or she has embraced, and bring it crashing down. At best, you become fragmented, “dismembered,” like Osiris.
But “re-membering” the “buried parts” of yourself — those private truths — putting them back together and integrating them with your public life, is the path towards becoming fully “alive” again. That’s symbolized by the new life Osiris and Isis were then able to bring into the world. Bringing together your private self and your public self into one integrated person may require healing of emotional damage. And it takes some courage to shift course and assert who you are as a whole person, as you go forward. But feeling free, as one whole person is worth it, don’t you think?