The expression “feet of clay” comes from the Old Testament (see note) and refers to the discovery of an unanticipated or even bewildering flaw in an admired person. Think former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer or President Bill Clinton.
We tend to project our dreams, hopes, and expectations onto our heroes, awarding them almost mythical qualities approaching the shining perfection we aspire to but from which we fall short. Close up and personal, immersed in the grit of day-to-day life, we know the human faults and failings of ourselves and those close to us. We so desperately want to do better and be better (a wonderful human desire), that we look for examples to follow, to aspire to. The greater the distance, the easier it is for the rough edges of reality to blur, for greatness to permeate the entirety of a person, not just certain areas.
Folks, we ALL have feet of clay even the greatest among us, even the best and brightest. We all are human, we all have failings, we all have temptations, weaknesses, and flaws.
Our greatness lies, not in the absence of flaws, but in the degree and extent to which we struggle against our weaknesses, renounce our failings.
It is in our willingness to admit when we stumble and do genuine penance for our mistakes, to not just say sorry but DO sorry, that our true greatness lies.
When we ask perfection of others — our leaders and heroes — when we ask the impossible, we ask them to lie to us, to dawn false mask and parade before us in facades adorned with fool’s gold. At some level we all are aware that it is a charade and we are all the poorer for it.
FEET OF CLAY: Old Testament (Daniel 2:31-32). The Hebrew captain Daniel interprets a dream for Nebuchadnezzar, founder of the new Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a giant idol with golden head, silver arms and chest, brass thighs and body, and iron legs. Only the feet of this image, compounded of iron and potter’s clay, weren’t made wholly of metal. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that the clay feet of the figure made it vulnerable, that it prophesized the breaking apart of his empire. Over the years readers of the Bible were struck with the phrase “feet of clay” in the story and it was used centuries ago to describe an unexpected flaw or vulnerable point in the character of a hero or any admired person.”
From the “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,” by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)
Daniel 31-33: “Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.”