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Posted at 05:15 PM ET, 11/12/2012

Petraeus, Armstrong, Elmo — A hard week to believe


Don’t stop believing. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, file) (Kevin Wolf - AP)
Lance Armstrong. Gen. David Petraeus. Elmo, for God’s sake.

This is a hard week to be a believer, and it’s only Monday.

Lance Armstrong has severed his formal ties with Livestrong, after being stripped of his titles and engulfed in a welter of doping controversy.

Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo is stepping down to deal with allegations that he had improper sexual relations with a minor. He denies them.

And – well, if you haven’t heard about the extramarital affair that engulfed the career of General David Petraeus in flames, you probably are getting out of the house more than I am.

It’s a hard week to believe. Maybe it always is.

Look at anything too closely and you see all the pores and blotches. Most people stubbornly insist on being just people, not more nor less. It takes a lot to convince us otherwise: savvy media strategy and a reputation as a “boy scout,” on Petraeus’ part; a tale of unbelievable triumph over both cancer and the Tour de France, on Armstrong’s; giving voice to a red furry muppet who seemed to personify (muppet-ify?) love.

We were shocked. We were disappointed. “There goes my childhood,” we said. “There goes my faith in humans.”

Maybe we were foolish to believe. Maybe it’s the perils of professionalism.

Make your living and your fame speaking to children across the country in a high-pitched voice and waving around a puppet whose approximate age is 3 and a half, who is incapable of the first person, and everyone is actually shocked that you might have had an improper sexual relationship. Do that as a hobby, and the Cleveland PD won’t stop circling your house.

Being paid for what you do makes all the difference. Show up in strangers’ basements dressed as a clown for money, and you’re a professional. Show up in strangers’ basements dressed as a clown when no one has paid you to do so (and it’s not Halloween), and they call the police.

Slap someone in the face for free, and it’s assault. Slap someone in the face for $350, and it’s a cosmetic service.

Most interactions are fundamentally changed by the introduction of money. Just look what happened to those Secret Service agents in Colombia. They thought they had just gotten lucky until the bill came.

Now we’re actively shocked and disappointed in the people behind our legends. “Inevitable” and “disappointment” are seen more and more often together in public, flirting disgracefully at receptions.

How do you believe in the face of disappointment? Do you? It’s quite easy to stop.

Whenever you believe in something that seems reassuringly large it hurts to find out that it wasn’t. There’s been a measure of self-flagellation in the press over Petraeus. When you help construct a statue it comes almost as a surprise to discover the feet are still made of clay.

Whenever you believe in something – person, place, thing , institution – you give them a piece of yourself. And that’s the part that gets trodden on when they let you down.

Some would argue this hasn’t been a good century for institutions. Humans are flawed, and whenever someone starts to suggest that he’s not, get out of there. When Phaëton says he’s okay to drive, just shake your head. No one who’s even half-human can drive that close to the sun.

Still, to me the most telling quote from this was someone who tweeted, “Elmo is disappointed.” This sums it up nicely. This is the truth that inoculates against disappointment.

You can be flawed majorly or flawed minorly, do something regrettable or stupid or downright wrong, and still create something worth believing in. Livestrong stands while Armstrong falls. The legacy of the “surge” in Iraq won’t depend on Petraeus’ personal failures. Elmo transcends the guy waving him around at the end of a stick.

Yes, it’s hard to believe. The disappointment burns every time. But it would be worse to stop.

By  |  05:15 PM ET, 11/12/2012

 
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