When you’re sitting on top of a house of cards the people beneath you can start to look deceptively smaller.
This idea occurred to me as I walked through the Greek antiquities rooms in the Metropolitan Museum this week.
The Greeks had a word for it: hubris. They saw hubris whenever swaggering men (and it was usually men) showed too much pride or self-confidence.
Hubris followed from a loss of contact with reality, from a total overestimation of your own capabilities, especially when you’ve been given a little power.
Politicians constantly fall prey to it, so do actors and pampered rock stars. But far less glamorous people can fall victim to it too; the people who vet the participants in a parade say, or the people who select the winners of a beauty competition, they can all suffer from hubris too.
How people wield power can tell you a lot about their deeper natures. What you learn isn’t always inspirational.
Sometimes it turns out that people’s motivations are just as lousy and superficial as you fear they might be.
Anyway, I had a particular reason for the Met visit this week. A few days earlier I had watched with horror as a knife-wielding fanatic attacked the root of civilization by beheading another journalist on CNN.
I desperately needed a beacon of hope that would assure me of how completely he and all of his blinkered cohorts will fail.
So that made me think of the Greeks. May the light of Periclean Athens never fail us.
Of course right outside of the Met is Fifth Avenue, the traditional Saint Patrick’s Day Parade route, and nearby is the American Irish Historical Society, a beacon of hope of our own.
The Irish know, or they should know, that power in the wrong hands becomes a tool to exclude. It becomes a thing that wounds rather than welcomes. You will have your first clue that things have gone very wrong when you hear a puffed up man exulting over all the people he considers to be beneath him.
You will hear divisive and intemperate words like these: “If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade? If African-Americans are marching in Harlem, do they have to let the Ku Klux Klan into their parade?"
These were the hubristic words of John Dunleavy, 75, a retired bus dispatcher who for years ruled the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue with an iron fist.
You can tell from these hard words that given a little power he had completely lost the run of himself. You could be Irish or you could be gay, but you could never be both, he suggested. It was ludicrous, but it would be years before he would finally be overruled.
I thought about John Dunleavy this week. More precisely, I thought about his very uncharacteristic silence. It must have come as a terrific shock to him to discover that the world – and the parade - had finally marched on.
People who have power expect to be consulted for their input. When they are not consulted they are no longer powerful. Silence had once followed his pronouncements, but now it was he who was silent.
Other little ironies are worth noting: the Saint Patrick’s Day parade committee crowd at the New York Athletic Club actually applauded this week when it was announced there that a gay group would finally march in the parade. Dunleavy must have thought the world has been upended.
Despite the fact that he will never acknowledge my - or any Irish gay LGBT person’s - equality, I felt for him. As a boy he had done his homework by candlelight – oil was only used when a visitor came to the house - he had grown up in an Ireland that is as irrecoverable now as Atlantis. It’s all gone.
I imagine that looking around the parade committee table that he once ruled with a fanatical hard line this week, he must have known that the house of cards had finally collapsed, that the torch had passed. The people who once looked so small from his vantage point on the review dais have somehow achieved stature.
And all that made me think of another museum, directly across Central Park. Looking up at the fiery asteroid that turned the sky to ash at the end of the Cretaceous period, I wonder if the dinosaurs now housed in the Natural History Museum had understood they were doomed?
180 million years is a very long time to roam the earth. Two decades is a long time to vet a parade.
The rest, the Greeks taught us, is hubris.