03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Celebrities Behaving Badly

"If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning," wrote English mystery writer Catherine Aird.

I love the way revelations about celebrities' personal lives give us all an opportunity to explore, discuss, and learn about important issues. "You're as sick as your secrets" therapists tell us -- and each time a famous person's secret comes to light, we have a chance to consider our own secrets. Who knows? Perhaps we can get a little healthier, both individually and collectively.

Mackenzie Phillips' is shining a light on the painful issue of family incest. Her new memoir, High on Arrival, details the excesses and debauchery of a life of sex, drugs, rock & roll - and reveals how her father, "Mamas and Papas" singer John Phillips, initiated a ten-year sexual relationship with his young daughter.

Roman Polansky's arrest reminds us that sexual predators come in many guises: the sleaze ball creep, the boy next door, the trusted priest, the popular coach, the distinguished political leader, and yes, the creative genius.

David Letterman's current troubles are a cautionary tale of the dangers of fishing from the company pier. He's giving us an education about what's sexual harassment and what isn't. And we see - in living color - the fallout from a workplace romance gone bad.

John Edward's ongoing, painful, public twisting in the wind illustrates - once again - that the cover-up is always a bigger sin than the transgression. Sadly, he's going down in history as just another liar hoisted by his own petard.

Michael Vick's arrest, trial, conviction, and jail time for dog fighting has done much to heighten our awareness of the ubiquitous problem of animal cruelty. Dog fighting, cock fighting, cat hoarding, puppy mills, and more - Vick brings renewed attention to an old problem.

Michael Jackson's untimely death reminded us that power and money can buy you doctors and drugs - but it can also buy you accidental death. We've seen this movie so many times before - with Anna Nicole, Elvis, Marilyn, Janis, Belushi - the list is a long one.

Bernie Madoff's astounding Ponzi scheme provides a glimpse into the financial heart of darkness beating in the chest of more than a few titans of Wall Street. The "greed is good" mantra doesn't die easily - recession or not.

Sociologists tell us that deviance plays a positive role for society. Deviance shows us what happens with you cross certain boundaries - as well as what and where those boundaries are. Deviance reminds us of cause and effect - the law of karma is alive and well. We see - up close and personal - that you really do reap as you sow. It may take awhile for misdeeds to catch up to you, but they almost inevitably do.

So, what can we learn from famous people behaving badly?

First, the human mind's capacity for denial is powerful. Most, if not all these transgressors undoubtedly rationalized their behavior in order to continue it. They are con artists who conned us into believing their public persona - and most of all, they conned themselves.

Second, power, prestige, fame, and money are intoxicating. Mixed together, they are a powerful cocktail that lowers moral inhibitions and frees one from the constraints of conscience. These people are LUI - Living Under the Influence.

Third, Henry Kissinger was right when he said, "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." There will always be plenty of women who are drawn to power like moths to a flame. That power may be political, financial, intellectual, social, musical, artistic, etc. Remember, Monica Lewinsky told friends she was "going to Washington to get my presidential kneepads." Rielle Hunter sought out John Edwards to tell him, "You're hot." It is not easy for a man to resist such a crime of opportunity.

Fourth, who among us has not behaved badly? Or, who among us would not behave badly, given the opportunity? It's easy for us to jump right in as judge, jury, and executioner - but I wonder if any of us are as pure and righteous as we'd like to believe we are. Perhaps our time and energy would be better spent cleaning our own houses, rather than telling others how to live.

Fifth, one of the hallmarks of wisdom is the ability to learn from others' experiences. If we are wise, we will view celebrities' scandals as learning opportunities. Instead of finger-wagging and clucking admonishments, we would be smart to look for what we might learn from others' misdeeds.

And finally, we can practice compassion for the ne'er-do-wells among us. Bad behavior is often driven by deep-seated insecurity, self-loathing, fear, and/or a profound longing to be loved. Every great spiritual tradition teaches the value of compassion. That doesn't mean that we don't people accountable for their bad behavior - but it does mean that we must always extend the hope of forgiveness and redemption.

Years ago I saw a marquee in front of a church in North Carolina that read: "Those who deserve love least, need it the most." Amen.