What’s up with all of the recent headlines about married men behaving badly? First, John Edwards became a baby daddy to Rielle Hunter. Then Mark Sanford hiked the Appalachian Trail, via Argentina, and his wife detailed her travails in a book entitled Staying True. But the (so to speak) mother of all men behaving badly is Tiger Woods.
A man known for his grace under pressure, perfect golf stroke, and enviable family life, Tiger admitted, after he was linked to at least ten women, that he was “unfaithful,” “had affairs,” and “cheated.” In fact, so many women were willing to throw themselves at Tiger that Howard Stern has enough contestants to host a beauty pageant for Tiger’s many mistresses.
What lesson can we draw from the public media flogging of these three men?
Each had created a carefully crafted public image in furtherance of his personal ambitions, two in government and one in sports and the public endorsement realm. Why the overwhelming fascination with these three men and their affairs?
While our culture says “Just do it!” and encourages indulging your fantasies, dreams, and sexual appetites at every opportunity, news media find millions of ready eyeballs eager to gawk at spectacular flame-outs in which celebrities burn themselves with self-destructive behavior. Traditional boundaries of marriage and human relationships may be on the verge of a quantum shift. By some lights, Christian proponents of traditional marriage themselves experience a divorce rate that is nearly identical to that of non-Christians.
So why the almost obsessive fascination with Edwards, Sanford, and Woods?
Easily, Sanford’s behavior stands out because he became yet another poster boy for the hypocrisy of the religious right. Republican politicians who rely on their winsome, happy-family appearance to gain credibility with voters while throwing traditional-morality bombs are hoist on their own petard when their own extramarital misadventures explode into public view. The fascination with Sanford results from his blatant hypocrisy, the ridiculous stories he created to hide his affairs, and the colorful language revealed in the emails to his lover. We could say that he is being strung up for being a hypocrite and not actually for his sexual conduct.
Edwards captured the public imagination in part because of the political heights he attempted to scale and the limitless promises he was willing to make toward that effort. Another reason the story touched people was the level of devotion and deception of those around him who enabled and protected his affair. Yet the most compelling aspect of the Edwards story is the betrayal of his wife who was suffering from terminal cancer at the time of his affair. Upon hearing her husband’s confession of the affair, Elizabeth Edwards understandably cried, screamed and threw up.
If Sanford’s story was about hypocrisy, and Edwards’s story was about betrayal, what part of Tiger’s story made it so tantalizing? While no one would claim that Edwards or Sanford were cultural deities, Charles Pierce argued in GQ that Tiger was sports’ next messiah. Professional sports is big business, including about 800 organizations with combined annual revenue of over $16 billion. Tiger’s phenomenal athletic prowess made him into a cultural deity.
In their recent bestseller, Superfreakonimics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner note, “Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free.” But what about men who have enough fame that the fame itself buys them all the sex they could possibly want?
Writing as a then lifelong bachelor, before his eventual marriage to Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis observed that the male sexual appetite is in “ludicrous and preposterous excess” of its procreative function, theorizing that, “if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village.” If anything, “small village” might have been an understatement.
Some might argue that current American sexual morality gives Tiger a carte blanche for his sexual adventures. Lewis countered the notion that different civilizations and different ages have had fundamentally different moralities. “There have been differences between their moralities,” Lewis concedes, “but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. Selfishness has never been admired.” He continued: “Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked” — even if you are the best golfer on the planet.
The Tiger Woods story resonates with us and makes us uncomfortable due to two elements of the story. The first element is our satisfaction to see that even our cultural deities have clay feet and are subject to the law of human nature. Second, we uncomfortably remember that we too are subject to this law.
“Human beings all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it,” Lewis argued. And yet, people do not in fact behave the way they ought. People know the law of nature, and they break it. “These two facts,” Lewis claimed, “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”
As Paul lamented 1,900 years before Lewis, “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” This part of Tiger’s story make us all squirm in our seats because we remember that we too are subject to the law of human nature: If Tiger Woods, despite near-perfect mental and physical control on the golf course, cannot control his desires, how can we?
The Just Do It philosophy — surrender to all our desires — “obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour, and frankness,” as Lewis noted. Long before Tiger’s devastating plunge, Lewis pointed out that we have to control our nature, our natural desires — “unless you are going to ruin your whole life.”
At the end of Tiger’s public confession and apology, he made an earnest plea for us to “believe” in him again. Yet, if anything, his story demonstrates the fallacy of hero worship and points to the need instead to believe in an eternal truth; truer than a perfect golf stroke, truer than a seemingly flawless public persona, and truer than our belief that we can satisfactorily regulate our own behavior.