I am now sorry to say that I grew up with Bill Cosby as my tv father.
In the 70s and 80s, I thought Cosby was a comedy god, and as a child, it was impossible to escape him. Whether he was telling me to eat my Jell-O pudding pops or making me laugh with the rest of the Fat Albert gang, I thought he was the funniest person ever. As a huge fan of comedy, I can remember watching “Bill Cosby: Himself,” his quintessential stand-up special from 1983, over and over, trying to memorize his jokes and imitate his cadence, movements, and especially his voices. On Thursday nights, my parents and I would gather around the television to watch sweater-clad Cliff Huxtable teach his children another valuable lesson about life, and really, he was teaching me, too. We probably ended up watching all 197 episodes, so it was a real honor when I saw him perform in person in 1994 at my college when he came to do a concert there.
He also managed to be such a role model in his act. He never cursed or spoke negatively about anyone (except maybe his children). He also used his celebrity status to speak out about young black men and the role they play in society, how they needed to take responsibility for their actions and words. So, it was with a heavy heart and a tremendous amount of sadness when, in November 2014, I learned that Bill Cosby may have raped and sexually assaulted as many as 60 women over the course of his career.
As a country, we went through a variety of reactions to the news, from disbelief, to anger, to sadness, and so on. How could someone we trusted so much with our time and invested so much with our hearts betray us in such a way that was so disgracefully awful? To this day, we still shake our heads in disbelief at the allegations: not that we think they are false, but that they are so shamefully unbelievable.
Role models and idols play a big part in our lives. Ask anyone who their influences were growing up, and they will most likely name a celebrity, athlete, or musician. Some name a person closer to them, like a sibling, parent, or teacher. Then, and sometimes even now, we look to these people for guidance and example; we think they have the answers and their lifestyle reflects that wisdom. Yet when these role models misstep and fall, we are deeply shaken, as if our foundation has crumbled from beneath us. We spent so much time building our belief system and moral code on their teachings and examples, that to see them fall is detrimental to our support system. When Lance Armstrong battled cancer and fought his way back onto his bicycle, we were inspired to struggle. When he won 7 consecutive Tour de France competitions, we thought him a hero. And when he admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs the whole time, we didn’t know how to continue.
For Christians, our role models are those who walk in Christ’s footsteps and in His word. Hebrews 13:7 tells us to “Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith,” while in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul advises us to “imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.” For us, Christ is the only true role model, as He will never fall. Humans may, but He won’t. Yet what happens when they do?
Recently, I’ve directly experienced leaders and role models who were looked up to by many and guided by several, fall quite hard. What has been left in their wake are people who are now just as lost as I was when Cosby’s accusers came forward. So how do we overcome these catastrophes and rebuild? How can we recover from such a loss of faith?
For those who are directly affected, you can start by talking out your emotions when you’re ready. Finding someone, or a group of people, who will listen without judgement or interruption is extremely cathartic and cleansing. Express your every thought and feeling: how angry, sad, or alone it made you feel. Deal with the emotions head on instead of bottling them up inside. Also, listen to others who similarly idolized that individual. Hearing their grief may help you to realize that you are not alone. Additionally, petition God for healing and comfort, allowing His love to wash over the deep wounds that seem incurable.
For those who are not directly affected but know others who are, you might be the one that can walk them through this difficult time. When they are ready and willing to talk, listen in the same way as mentioned above: without judgement or interruption. Offer allowable emotional support, meaning that you ask permission to touch or hug them. If they are willing to, give it. If not, let them know that you understand. Just the knowledge that it’s there is sometimes comfort enough. Finally, be the role model when others people’s role models fall. Model how to respond in a crisis like this one. Be a good listener and supporter. Your example can set a new foundation where the previous one lay.
Obviously, putting faith in another person can be a risk, as our only perfect faith recipient, the one that will never fail, is Him. But being human, we tend to put our faith and trust in others, and that faith can be betrayed because we are human. The only thing we can do is be ready for when that failure happens and have a plan for recovery. Although the fallout as a result of our fallen idols is emotionally unpredictable, what we can predict is how to heal from it. Amen.