When Heroes Go Down.
Noun. A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.
When I saw the theme of this issue, my first thought was that I would probably not contribute. Not because I have anything against heroes, but because I couldn’t really think of anyone, living or dead, I have ever thought of in that way.
There are plenty of people I admire for one reason or another: Dorothy Parker, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Goya, Frida Kahlo, Rod Serling, Katharine Hepburn, and Vincent Price, to name a few in no particular order. However, I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling any of them a hero. It is such a loaded word, and no matter how great or accomplished the person, I can’t bring myself to use it. Role model is a better descriptor, but still used in a way that doesn’t stand up well to the sorts of flaws and failings to which everyone is, in the end, prone. Both words are so incredibly limited, and ultimately damaging.
People are just too complex, in my eyes, to hold up to such scrutiny. The first disappointment most of us experience is that day, as a child, when we realize your parent’s aren’t immortal, and that they don’t have all the answers. It is natural, I suppose, to then turn elsewhere to fill that yearning for some sort of adult wisdom. Surely someone, somewhere has gotten it right? Some charismatic celebrity, brilliant artist, or long-dead public figure has to have figured out how all the pieces fall together; and that must mean, that if you follow their example, so can you.
Perhaps I am over-simplifying. Not everyone expects their role models to be perfect, or emulates them quite that consistently. But when, as a culture, we idolize certain people, it sure seems that way. And, when they inevitability turn out to be just as human as the rest of us, we love tearing them down almost as much as we enjoyed raising them up in the first place. The focus created by this way of thinking, whether by large groups of fans or one person’s way of looking at another, seems to be a way to set everyone up for disappointment.
No-one is all good or all bad. Being talented doesn’t make someone a good person, righteousness doesn’t make them kind. Observing from too great a distance, such as the one created by uncritical admiration, does a disservice to both ourselves and the object of our admiration. They are no more perfect than we are, and perfection is a small, brittle thing when compared to the messy contradictions of a full human being.
This is not to say that our admiration is unwarranted. From our infancy, we learn through example; mimicry and modeling are how we learn right and wrong, what makes us happy, and what we can and want to be. Emulating the best in others, what we wish to see in ourselves, helps us realize our potential. But we need to do so on our own terms, with open eyes and realistic expectations. Ultimately, no one person can serve as a role model. In the real world, one can admire aspects of one individual, but platonic ideals exist only in the intelligible realm. The concept of “hero” is an too big a burden for one person to carry.
Procrastinations, Issue #9, November 2011