Mother Teresa and the Halo effect

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Mother Teresa’s name is synonymous with charitable deeds. For decades she has represented, to many, all that is pure and good in the world. But recent reports indicating that her legend may not be all that it seems have shaken this image, leaving some disillusioned.

I wasn’t Mother Teresa’s BFF

So here’s the thing about all that. I didn’t know Mother Teresa personally. I can’t know her deepest secrets. I can’t know how her flawed humanity caused her to make mistakes, what motives she had, what personal dreams or wishes she had for herself.

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When a do-gooder’s reputation becomes larger than life, they cease being an everyday person and start to become a symbol. This is problematic for that person and for society, because the person stops being allowed to have flaws, and society stops remembering they are flawed. The pressure is on. Symbols can’t mess up, or they’ll dash dreams and make cynics of us all.

What’s my point? I suppose I’m expressing a bit of disappointment here, on two different levels. Perhaps there’s some sympathy here for an imperfect Mother Teresa, combined with sadness that those we can count among the heroic or altruistic are few and far between.

On the one hand, nobody is perfect. I imagine it’s lonely being expected to be a flawless symbol of goodness, at the expense of all other things that make up your identity (what was Martin Luther King’s favorite color? Gandhi’s worst nightmare? Nobody knows the human beings, only the symbols).

On the other hand, the capacity to be flawed is a sacrifice you make when you rise to the status of legend, saint, or hero, similar to the notion that those in public office must be held to higher standards than others. It’s a trade off: As one’s impact grows, one’s personal identity shrinks.

It applies to organizations, too

nonprofit scandalWe see this when it comes to nonprofits involved in scandals, too. High profile nonprofit scandals of the past decade have shaped the sector, influencing charitable giving and the public’s general attitude about charity.

We want to hold do-gooders on high. We crave people to look up to, and aspire to be like them. Heroic legends help drive progress. Stories of good people inspire us to action and empower us to reflect on our own behaviors. And, it hurts our hearts when we feel betrayed by these people. As a society we assign do-gooders and social good organizations a sort of “halo effect” – a phenomena in which one aspect of a person or thing can influence others’ opinions on other aspects of that person or thing – and a double entendre when used in reference to saintly-seeming deeds. 

Once you embark on a journey of service, ethics become paramount. It’s your duty, if for no other reason that if you betray the public’s trust, you won’t just be losing supporters for your own cause, but for other causes as well.

Mother Teresa was a human being who may or may not have made some big mistakes, and who may or may not have had pure intentions. I think the lesson we can take from reports of her fraudulence – or, really, any story about do-gooders’ falls from grace – is that we should take into account all sides of the story, then make a decision. We shouldn’t let the halo effect prevent us from gaining clear perspective on an issue. We also shouldn’t let a legendary status keep us from seeing real problems at hand.

Sometimes, it is unfortunately true, not everybody enters into a life of service with the best of intentions and those that fail the public should be held responsible. But I believe that, for the most part, mistakes aside, those in service are just struggling to do the best they can. To stay idealistic, we simply have to remember: Everybody’s human.

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