In the developed world, we live longer and have more choices than ever before, but this embarrassment of riches is creating a growing problem. Many people simply get overwhelmed by all the options. As technology moves faster and faster, the problem will only get worse as choices expand exponentially. Mix in advertising that pulls you 50 different directions at once, and you have a recipe for mental breakdown. Perhaps that’s one reason why we have so many mental problems today.
That is why we need heroes. Like ice cream, heroes come in all flavors: living and long dead, young and old, and even imaginary (fictional characters). Regardless of what type they are, we admire them for the same reason: they lived according to their chosen purpose to the best of their abilities. They inspire you to choose a goal and stay focused on it through life’s distractions. While having a hero of any type is great, I believe that it’s very important to have at least one living hero – one that you can read about, see, and know they are still doing what they believe in. This is because s/he can keep you focused in the present. With literary heroes or heroes of the past, you may be susceptible to the escapist “I wish I lived in their time/world” pitfall. It’s even better if your living heroes are ones you can interact with personally – your mentors.
Today, we love deconstructing our heroes, which isn’t a problem in itself – provided that we put the person back together again afterwards. Sometimes we can learn a lot from deconstructing someone’s life, and such knowledge can further our appreciation of that person. But sadly, some people simply like tearing down myths and heroes for fun or personal gain (ie. sensationalist “tell all” bestsellers), leaving wreckage in their wake. So Thomas Jefferson kept slaves and fathered a child with a slave – does this erase the fact that he also wrote the Declaration of Independence? Is he now unworthy of respect, or is he simply more complicated than we previously imagined? We have too few heroes as it is; do not impoverish the world by destroying the few we have remaining!
It’s no secret that our heroes have flaws – to be human is to be flawed in some way. Besides, it would arguably be harder to relate to a perfect hero anyway. For example, how can a counselor who has never had a drug problem convince recovering addicts that he “feels their pain?” (Some would say that Jesus disproves this argument; however, his followers consider him to be God, thus he is not strictly human in the sense that we are human). Heroes are not perfect, nor do we need them to be. They made mistakes, like all human beings, but ultimately they rose above their disabilities and weaknesses to become something more. They are shining beacons of light in moments of darkness.
Always remember that a person’s life is but a vessel for the unique spirit within. Let not mere imperfections obscure the light that shines forth so brilliantly from such souls. I will close with a few relevant words from one of my heroes, Will Durant:
“So let us listen to these men, ready to forgive them their passing errors, and eager to learn the lessons which they are so eager to teach. ‘Do you then be reasonable,’ said old Socrates to Crito, ‘and do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of Philosophy herself. Try to examine her well and truly; and if she be evil, seek to turn away all men from her; but if she be what I believe she is, then follow her and serve her, and be of good cheer.'” The Story of Philosophy, p. xxix.
Needleman, Jacob, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, 2003 – He makes many fine points here, one of which is that we need to remythologize our heroes.