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On heroes and the heroic

August 4, 2010

martin luther king jr, mother teresa, gandhi, and joseph smith

Are these the heroes we have?

When I was in academic decathlon, each interviewer would inevitably ask some question about personal heroes. At every interview, I’d give a thoughtless, cliche’d, generic answer (like “my mom and dad”) because I didn’t (and don’t) feel all that compelled by heroes. (no offense to my mom and dad; they rock.)

I’ve written a couple of times about my (dis)couragement regarding heroes. I acknowledge the possibility that my ideal is unrealistic, but I feel that the term hero should be reserved for someone reasonably spotless. Since most real humans do not fit this ideal, I think many people lower the ideal, looking for “good” people. At some point, the standard drops simply to “good enough” people. I feel this is a shame.

I feel this is what happens a lot of times with the church. As people learn more about the church and the various personalities within it, they reach forks in roads (of which the ones I list aren’t exhaustive). Some members feel pressured to rationalize that whatever unpalatable thing happened still fits the ideal (“x prophet’s statement about x must be divine…I just don’t understand it yet,”) while others box off that unpalatable thing (“so x statement wasn’t prophetic. It was just speculation”) and perhaps re-evaluate the standard completely (“I oughtn’t have looked for perfect or capital-t Truth [whatever that even means!] All in all, this church is good, so I’ll stick by it.”)

I don’t have problems with these mechanisms per se, and I don’t necessarily think that we should immediately jump to the other side with certain other conclusions (e.g., “x prophet did x, which means that he can be nothing but a total scoundrel!”). At the same time, recognizing the grays of real life should not mean that we make our ideals gray…right?

I think there are also times when we think that a person in question is a hero, but with time, the character assassins descend swiftly. These often jaundiced journalists expose the fragility of heroism when they (dis)integrate and jeopardize the claims to that ideal. I think that I was most astonished not by finding out unpalatable details about Joseph Smith, but instead about finding the skeletons in the closets of individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.

Adultery? Racism? Being a jerk-ette in a multi-year faith crisis? Finding out these kinds of things (dis)illusioned me to the idea that the ideal of heroism could ever have been realized in a particular form.

I posted my thoughts on a forum, and there were two names that came up nearly unanimously: Carl Sagan and Fred Rogers. As far as I could tell, I couldn’t see any scandals or rumors of scandals in either one’s past that bore out.

Carl Sagan, Fred Rogers

The new slate of heroes?

When I asked on twitter, Kuri (from To Try a New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer) suggested Nelson Mandela. Molly (of Molly Muses) (dis)agreed, noting that although he was a good guy, his path in life made skeletons necessary.

This seemed a bit plausible to me (but maybe only because I am also quite cynical regarding to politics), but that made me wonder…what could be said about heroes, heroines, and the heroic? [Also, who on the XX team matches the XY team’s Fred Rogers?]

When I was even asking these questions, a few thoughts came to mind. Even though I’m proposing a lofty ideal (and don’t want to back out of that), I don’t think the ideal is for “spotless.” So, I think there are all sorts of “spots” that wouldn’t ruin the “hero” aesthetic.

For example, something someone did as a kid wouldn’t really cut it. I’m not really concerned if someone squashed bugs when they were five (unless it led to something worse when they were 25 or 35.) I am undecided on how repentance and contrition might also work in (dis)qualifying past misdeeds done.

Additionally, I feel that the skeletons in the closet must be…weighed? Possible or potential skeletons don’t weigh against a person as much as skeletons that are widespread, well-documented, and the like. A quotation taken out of context to create a scandal doesn’t (dis)grace a person like repeated, contextual quotations. Similarly, “scandals” that would only be seen as such by particular groups don’t seem all that scandalous. I guess D.A.R.E. didn’t get to me, but I really don’t think Sagan’s marijuana advocacy and use expel him from consideration.

But that’s all the bad stuff. I think that a heroes can make a difference in many lives…in fact, I think that a hero must. I understand that someone can call a personal hero by that name only because the hero made a difference in that someone’s *one* life, but again, I have this idiosyncratic ideal.

A singer once described fame as a monster (…but then again, she also described sex as a way for people to steal her creativity, so…), but I feel like heroes tame that fame monster, (dis)regarding the odds. In that way, if a politician were heroic, this heroism would, to me, seem all the more remarkable.

In the end, I recognize that these criteria, qualifying and (dis)qualifying, are all fuzzy. I’d still like to believe that I’d recognize it if I saw it. And I’d like to believe that as time goes on, that at least some hero candidates don’t befall the terrible fate of character assassination. Because ultimately I’d like it if someone, if they were asked about it in an interview, could give a thoughtful, unique and (dis)tinct answer to a question about their personal heroes.

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5 Comments
  1. The Great Man (/Woman) Theory of History permeates our view of history. It is inaccurate. Looking for new criteria of heroes is part of that mistake. We need to stop looking for heroes.

    If Einstein had died young, someone else would have come up with the theory of relativity — it was in the air. We are all interconnected and dependent on those before us, stuff comes up in spite of any given falsely-idealized hero.

    The venture for heroes is not more than a disguised venture for a God-King — it is time to move on.

  2. SUNNofaB.C.Rich permalink

    sometimes heroes are only heroes for a moment…

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