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Who needs a hero?

October 13, 2009
Is Hercules your hero?

Is Hercules your hero?

Who are your heroes?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had an answer for this question that resonated with me. The very concept of “heroes,” like the concept of religion, seems something novel and fantastic — something that would be nice if it truly worked out in our world — something ultimately ill-equipped for dealing with real-world issues.

So, I find myself coming to the conclusion, whenever I start thinking about it, that I just don’t believe in heroes…in the same way I don’t believe in religions (or more specifically, I don’t believe in the specific tenets and hopes of certain religions…whether it is the Mormon approach to Christianity or non-LDS Christianity (sorry, I’m really too ill-read to make unqualifed blanket statements about the many others.)

I think the reason why is because the very concept of heroes is unfit for people. It places undue and unreasonably high expectations. And high expectations are meant to be unfulfilled — a painful realization for those who must undergo it.

I think that when we say someone is our hero, we naturally create lofty expectations of them. We naturally focus on their bold, brave acts. We focus on the good. This is natural because if we do not, then we cheapen the concept of the hero.

OK, I admit: both entities here trigger uncanny valley for me.

OK, I admit: both entities here trigger uncanny valley for me.

Unfortunately, this emphasis on the good is disastrous because realistic people do have flaws. A person without at least some flaws hits that huge dip in the uncanny valley…we just know the person is close to being legitimate, but the one thing that he doesn’t get right sticks out. Big ones, usually. We might be able to avoid learning about these flaws (or put these flaws on a shelf if we know about them) for a while, but still…one thing has to give eventually: either our concept of “heroes” or our view of a specific person as a hero.

We might be OK if we could avoid learning about the tragic flaws of our heroes…but somehow…heroes are just magnets for people who want to dethrone them. Heroes are magnets for scrutiny and character defamation.

I mean, let’s take some popular heroes…How about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Or how about Mother Teresa? Gandhi’s a usual favorite too.

It’s easy to think of all of these people as pretty heroic. Wow, did Dr. King do anything wrong? What an amazing person! Same with Mother Teresa and Gandhi.

But of course, the character defamers have done their homework too. Dr. King had some unsavory misconduct in his life (what does compulsive sexual athleticism even mean?). Mother Teresa apparently had some attitude issues and was a jerk. And how about those racist sentiments Gandhi made? Can we just attribute them to the era?

I guess it’s sound to question at this point. Are any of these claims substantiated? Do they hold up or are they “frankly pathetic”?

Let’s say we do find that some of these claims appear to be true. Do they even matter?

Some would say these negative aspects should not stop us from viewing heroic acts as heroic and heroic people as heroic. In fact, they might argue that flawed, human heroes are even more valuable because they are realistic. (Oh! and how people do this to the prophets! both ways…some insist that no negative claim is or can be substantiated…while others quickly reduce the expectations they associate with the concept of a “prophet” down to a shade…)

But this has never compelled me. I simply have too much respect for an idea of a hero. Heroes are unrealistic. Heroes are grand and spectacular. If that means that no human I know qualifies, then so be it. It would be better to avoid cheapening the concept of a hero than to falsely call someone a hero just to have a hero.

But beyond that, the general associations and implications of heroes don’t even make sense to me. When people inquire about heroes, they often want to know want to know what about them we want to emulate. What virtues of theirs would we make universal?

But I don’t believe humans should emulate…or at least, not in a capacity that would justify calling the emulated a hero. To emulate would imply that we are on the same track as our hero…or that we are trying to adopt their track in life.

But this we cannot do. We have our own lives. So, even if I may admire someone for how they are doing in their track, I do have to realize that I have my lifemy track…I have my strengths and weaknesses…I cannot “borrow” someone else’s circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses, no matter how appealing they seem to me. Because they will always be better at being them than I can be.

Instead, I have to work on mine. My ideal self, then, can’t be another person. It must be Me Prime. Even if I feel my set of strengths and weaknesses are pretty terrible, at the end of the day, I do come to conclude that I would rather have my weaknesses than any other person’s…because I am familiar with them…so all I need to do is learn how to overcome them. Many people call their parents their heroes, and while I of course love my parents and think they are great people, I know that they have weaknesses that I simply would not want to have. I would easily take my platter of problems over theirs and work on getting through my plate before asking for seconds.

I don’t think all is lost. In fact, I believe my vote of no confidence in heroes is actually a vote of great confidence in people. For if I view people as heroes, I feel I am putting them on pedestals, setting them up for a harsh fall when the pedestal collapses.

So I don’t view people as heroes. I view them, like I view myself, as people. No one more intrinsically magical than the next. And I think this actually values people and their actions better than if I were to call them heroic heroes…because instead of expecting so much and becoming disappointed when expectations aren’t met…I  start without expectations — because what can I expect from other ordinary humans like myself? — and when people surpass that, I am able to fully appreciate that even mere humans can be pretty awesome.

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  1. Batman is my hero! My husband and I just watched Superman-Batman: Public Enemies this weekend. My favorite line was:

    Superman: You didn’t have to use the wire. I could have carried you.
    Batman: Between you and me… I hate that.

    I’m also terribly partial to the Cassandra Cain Batgirl.

    I’m sorry, were you expecting any actually useful feedback on this post?

  2. Don’t even get me started on Batman. Batman is a PERFECT example of this post.

    Batman is not super at all. He has no powers. He has MONEY, MENTAL ISSUES, and TIME TO PLAN. That’s it.

    Is that what we want our children emulating?

  3. FireTag permalink

    “…because instead of expecting so much and becoming disappointed when expectations aren’t met…I start without expectations …”

    I have often been described that way by my family, who tweek me about it by calling me “Eeyore!”

    I wonder if that says something psychologically profound about both of us, Andrew.

    I actually was trying for Green Lantern:

    “In brightest day, in blackest night,
    No evil shall escape my sight.
    Let those who worship evil’s might,
    Beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!”

    I wore a “power ring” all through 5th grade. It seemed to help.

  4. green lantern is weak…to the color yellow. (may I remind everyone that yellow is one of the colors that compose green)

    perhaps it’s better to be eeyore 😉

    • FireTag permalink

      Which says that combining red and blue in the presence of our weakness turns it to power. See, political truth, too.

  5. [i]Is that what we want our children emulating?[/i]

    Well, I named my daughter Harley after the character of Harley Quinn. You may recall that Quinn is the homicidal ex-psychologist girlfriend of the Joker who completed her doctorate by screwing her professors in medical school, and that her relationship to the Joker is one in which she suffers perpetual, almost-lethal abuse and yet she keeps crawling back to him.

    Is that more of what you had in mind?

  6. Damn. I used BBTags instead of HTML. FAIL.

  7. The Joker and Harley are a-ok with me.

    But the BBTags are UNFORGIVABLE. 😀

  8. My wife is the only person I have elevated to hero status.

  9. Guest Writer 800+ permalink

    Growing up, Bill Nye was one of my heroes.

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