Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Dangers of Charisma (At Least I’m Safe)

Back in the dark, dark past, I spent my first years of college at Young Harris, a small two-year Methodist school at the foot of Double Knob, a mountain buttress along a ridgeline rising to the nearby Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak.

In the autumn of my freshman year, I "pledged" a fraternity, which meant that in order to join this pseudo-Greek society of young men, I had to undergo an "initiation" consisting of the typical senseless acts of humiliation that so naturally come to the minds of young men. 

In my case, this initiation mostly encompassed several late night sessions of hazing, which involved gathering on the school’s sports field after midnight to endure various kinds of harassment inflicted on us pledges by the fraternity’s current brotherhood. Some of this was less than good-natured, but mostly it was just silly, such as being forced to chew tobacco or do push-ups in a pool of mud. Once we were driven, blindfolded, to a graveyard and abandoned. It was these kinds of character-building rituals.

One ritual, apparently handed down through the generations, involved a surprise midnight hike to a rock outcrop on the flanks of Double Knob. I think it was called “Sunset Rock”. 

Maybe a half a dozen of the “big brothers” (they were already sophomores and, at the ripe age of at least 19, a year older than us pledges) led the entire pledge class (maybe twenty) by flashlight into the unknown woods behind campus and up a steep trail to eventually reach, in the dead of night, the exposed heights of Sunset.

Once at our airy destination, we pledges were ordered to remove our underwear. Then, as we crowded around on the exposed outcrop, we were ordered to toss said underwear into a deep crevice in the rock.

Or maybe we just piled them under a ledge. I don’t recall exactly. Anyway, I can only assume that my pair of white briefs are still there at Sunset to this day, along with all those of my fellow pledges – all, that is, except for those of one pledge. I’ll call him Jim.

Tall, with a beard and long hair, Jim looked and dressed like a rock star. He was cool. He was a genuinely nice guy, but he was also iconoclastic, brimming with a certain kind of charisma.

When instructed by the big brothers to remove his underwear, Jim said he couldn’t do that because he didn’t wear any. When asked why, he explained, “It’s against my religion.”

Fair enough. Every religion has its quirks.

After our underwear was duly deposited in the secret recesses of Sunset Rock, the big brothers left us alone, in the dark. They headed back down the narrow trail, with their flashlights. We pledges would have to find our way back in the pitch darkness on our own.

No one had a clue which direction to go. Except downhill, of course. But there are many different ways to go downhill. I suppose we first debated it among ourselves, some of us having stronger opinions than others about the best way down.

While I, like the rest of us, had never been up there before, I had earlier explored some of the woods behind the school on my own. And having grown up in the mountains, unlike most of my fellow pledges, I had some idea of the lay of the land. I recall saying we should bear more to the left. 

As the discussion progressed, however, it was soon clear that Jim, more charismatic and confident than the rest of us, emerged as our leader. He led us to the right.

Instead of following the ridgeline back down to school, we were soon descending into a deep hollow, bushwhacking through the thick, invisible woods. We eventually reached the bottom of the valley and a road and made our way back to campus just before daybreak. It was clear that we had taken a long, aimless route back.

Our big brothers praised us for the way we twenty or so guys, still mostly strangers to each other, had coalesced as a team and found our way back in the dark. The brothers stressed that even though we became thoroughly lost in the process, we had stayed, and worked, together  which was the whole point of the exercise.

I suppose that really was the point, rather than just the sheer fun of abandoning us – sans our Fruit of the Looms – in dark and unfamiliar woods. I can see how putting us through a challenging experience, the benefit of “team building”, might outweigh the benefit of getting off the mountain by the easiest path.

Still, I came away from that experience with another lesson, one about the pitfalls of charisma.

I realized that there’s something in human nature that makes many of us gravitate toward the charismatic dude, even if he has no clue what he’s doing. Too often, charisma can trump actual competence. Too often, charisma by itself can breed undeserved influence, even political power. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Sometimes it might matter quite a lot.

That’s a lesson I keep in mind as I warily watch the runaway political steamroller named Donald Trump, a very charismatic dude indeed. While just this week he suffered a blow by losing the caucuses in Iowa, his charisma is no doubt very much intact. He still makes me nervous. 

The Young Harris College campus, with Double Knob in the background.