Who are Your Heroes?

It's been a while since I've blogged about a psychological topic. This one seems overdue.
We all need heroes. You know, people to look up to—and maybe even pattern our lives after. When I was a kid, heroes were commonplace. If you asked any young person who they admired, they could rattle you off a list and that list usually included the President of the United States, a scientist or two, maybe a sports figure and even a parent or relative!

My heroes were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Anna Pavlova, Leonard Bernstein, Anais Nin, Carl Jung, JFK, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Meade, and quite a few others. Not all at the same time, of course. Any not necessarily in that order. The point is that I always had someone I respected, who I wanted to be like.

That was all pre-internet. Today's media is intrusive and delights in digging up dirt. Maybe because I'm a psychologist, or maybe just because I'm a human being, I'm not under any illusions. We all have skeletons in the closet, dirt under the rug and things we've done that we're not very proud of. Things we'd just as soon others either forgot about, or never knew in the first place.

Because the media delights in tearing anyone and everyone down, they've contributed to the death of heroes in our culture. Once you've made a mistake—any mistake—you're just not hero material anymore. The fallout from that is a generation (actually a couple of them, now) without role models.
I was riding the shuttle from Red's Meadow (a popular camping area here that's three miles from town and accessible only by bus) a few days ago and struck up a conversation with a seventeen-year-old boy. He seemed really glad to have someone to talk with. Turned out he'd just moved here a week ago and is living with an aunt. I asked him who his heroes were. After he got done rolling his eyes, he said no one. He'd idolized Joe Paterno. After his fall from grace, my young acquaintance decided there wasn't any point. "All adults are liars," he told me. "I only believe in myself."

I thought about telling the young man that just because Joe made a serious error in judgment covering up for Sandusky, it didn't wipe out all the good things he'd done. But I kept my mouth shut. After all, the University fathers were quick to remove Joe's statue from campus. Apparently, they wanted to distance themselves from the catastrophe. Not that it's helped much. Penn State has lost far more than their premier football program from Sandusky's shenanigans. The remaining 45,000 students and all the other faculty (who are innocent, by the way) are suffering, too.

I saw the same thing happen here in my little town when a well-respected doctor engaged in sex with a young teen. He lost his position on the school board and the hospital terminated his contract. The doctor, who couldn’t live with the shame, killed himself leaving a widow and two young sons.

Somehow, we've evolved to a place where once someone does something (anything) bad, it cancels out the entire rest of their lives. JFK couldn't have survived today's media. If I recall correctly, among his many extra-marital partners, he was sleeping with an East German spy. Regardless, JFK was—and continues to be—a hero in many people's eyes. Which is as I think it should be.
Shakespeare (who couldn't have stood up to close scrutiny, either) said: The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones… It's a well-known line out of Julius Caesar. Let me throw down the gauntlet here. We can choose what we wish to remember about people. We can also choose not to allow one misstep, or even a string of them, to wipe out every other part of that person's legacy. Maybe we could turn that Shakespeare quote around and bury the bad, while remembering the good.

Was Sandusky guilty? It certainly seems so. Was what he did wrong? Of course. Did he do good things, too? I believe the answer is "yes", since few of us are unmitigated monsters. Did Paterno cover for him? Yup.
As individuals we need to develop the gumption to learn to pick and choose for ourselves. There are no perfect people. Even as a child, I didn't think my heroes were perfect. Yet, I understood on some level that I needed heroes for my own personal growth. And I still do. Carl Jung will be one of my heroes until the day I die, not because he was perfect. He wasn't. Today's media would have had a heyday with his ménage a trois setup. I admire him because he was a visionary who wasn't afraid to look beyond the strictures of his time for answers to the mysteries. I don't like it that he slept with a few of his patients, but that doesn't negate his brilliance or his contribution to our understanding of the unconscious mind.

What do you think? Do you have heroes? Who are they? Most importantly, would they still be your heroes if the media hung them out the dry?


  1. I wrote a story a few years ago (sold it, too, but the mag went belly up before it was published) speaking somewhat to this theme that people are much readier to believe ill of a person than good. The majority of people seem predisposed to lap up salacious gossip and hurtful details, as though hoping that these exalted folk in the news are really just human after all, down at the average Joe's mundane level. We believe in demons far more readily than we believe in saints walking among us. Yet we want heroes. We seek them out and glorify people simply because they're famous, then viciously rejoice the second they put a foot wrong. My heroes were people like Alvin York, Neil Armstrong, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Elizabeth Blackwell (first US licensed female doctor) who put their own lives on the line or, just as difficult, placed their reputations at risk and stood fast in the face of incredible vituperation and pressure to bend to "conventional wisdom." The women who fought for the vote were demonized as insane and jailed for exercising their right to protest. Some were locked away in insane asylums.

    Courage should never go out of fashion. In my personal experience, it is harder to stand up to ridicule and constant character assaults than it is to physical danger. Thus the full-court press assaults on politicians who have been deemed on the "wrong" side of whatever political issue the press has embraced are so effective. And, because they know the public will buy papers when the stories are full of dirt, the press feels justified in hurling 30-year-old indiscretions or opinions in someone's face, as though in that 30 years they never grew up, got more information, changed their minds, or embraced new ideas. Sad, sad, sad. The shallowness on display in the media (and the people who swallow that stuff whole without question) every day is appalling.

  2. Thanks, Sue, for your thoughtful comments. Reading what you had to say about women who were demonized as they fought for the right to vote reminded me of the over 1 million women who were burned at the stake or stoned for "witchcraft" over about a 300 year period. Burning was probably kinder overall than life in a nineteenth century asylum.Those women were the victims of ignorance and a much earlier version of a frenzy-feeding media. In those days, they distributed leaflets. Today it's the internet. The net impact is about the same. Someone's life ends up in shreds because they march to a different drummer.

  3. Hi Ann. We need heroes. I like mine fictional. Maybe because your point about surviving today's social transparency, for real live ones, is well taken. How's this for an idea? Maybe we should focus on heroic acts not the whole person. Here's another thought: we want to make heroes of famous people because fame is cool. But getting to be famous often includes character traits that lead to temptation to fall from grace. Do we have the courage to see the heroes in our everyday lives who don't fall, and don't get famous either? In Part 5: Far Arena of the Okal Rel Saga, my magnus opus, the hero I most admired is Bley, an ordinary middle-aged woman who demonstrates integrity in the face of fame-excitement. I didn't get to put her on the cover, of course. :-) And I understand that. But it's nice to talk about her here.

    1. Hi Lynda,
      I really appreciate your point about how getting famous frequently includes the temptation to fall from grace. After all, the person finally has the wherewithal to string out enough rope to hang themselves. I also liked your question about whether we have the courage to see the "everyday hero" in each of us. I'm going to try harder to do just that.

  4. I think you're right. The old "nobody's perfect" rule meant we could look to imperfect heroes and still call them heroes. Now we're afraid we'll brand ourselves imperfect if we acknowledge an imperfect hero.

    1. Hi Sheila,
      Boy, isn't that the truth. All you need to do is take a look at how quickly people distance themselves from "fallen heroes" to appreciate the truth in your comment.

  5. I think there is a difference between role models and heroes. First of all heroes has become debased as a currency not only by intrusive media, but also by government and advertisers trying to pedal their message. Modern conflicts in foreign lands are propped up by images of noble soldiers dying in battle and plastered all over the media at the government's prompting. With regards to Afghanistan, any body bag returning to the UK is automatically conferred the status of 'hero'. They are actually professional soldiers killed in battle, a battle in a war very few over here believe is worth prosecuting.

    Secondly hero was originally a literary conceit from the ancient Greeks, a man- and it was always a man in that male society- who dared to try and elevate himself from the everyday and aspire to the status of a demi-god, usually through great deeds, often warlike. But heroes in dramatic tragedies had built in flaws, acted with hubris in daring to match the status of the divines and usually crashed and burned. A similar model for our celebrities today, who build themselves up through profile via the media and then I think I have no right if the media then turn round and bite them by delving into their private lives.

    A role model ought to be someone in your regular life you are in contact with and aspire to be like because of the positive impression they make on you. You look up to them. And while they too may be flawed and ultimately you may reject their example accordingly, at least it isn't part of an impossible and hyper-real world as attends celebrities. the scale of managing the let-down ought to be more manageable.

    I have no heroes. Didn't really have any as a child. I have people whose work I respect. In the field of authors and musicians, there are many I respect, but not the whole corpus of their work, but rather certain books and albums. As a writer myself, I believe that the concept of 'hero' within fiction has probably had its time (that's not to say we can't still have protagonists). I say this because I don't think the notion of character journeys and arcs, of beginnings, middles, and ends within their personal story, usefully reflect human experience in real life. Real lives are not lived as narratives, though creatures of patterning that we are, we look back to impose patterns on our lives in order to try and find 'meaning'. Whereas if we tried to project ahead to our inevitable physical deaths and then work back as to the purpose of our lives and reflect this in our fiction, then maybe we might come up with different and more efficacious answers. but I accept that I am in the minority with this approach.

    Thanks for hearing me out.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful response. You're a deep thinker which probably makes your writing very interesting. I agree with you that the Anna Karenina and An American Tragedy type books that are reflections on a life have fallen woefully out of fashion. People want to be entertained with what's not real these days.
    I run into much the same thing in my psychotherapy practice. People have been brainwashed to want what isn't practical. (Like to be "happy" all the time.) They make the mistake of interpreting what they read and see in movies as "real life". Against that backdrop, most lives would come up short. What that yields is a whole group of chronically unhappy people who look for answers outside themselves. All the true answers lie within each of us. It's just a matter of being still long enough to listen to our hearts.

  7. I had read this post a few days ago, Ann, but all of the USADA brouhaha with Lance Armstrong reminded me of this discussion.

    I also agree with Sulci Collective in part - I think that the word "hero" gets tossed around an awful lot now. It cheapens the idea of heroism when all it takes to be labeled a hero is to do something outside of the norm, rather than something of exceptional bravery, ability, and distinction.

  8. Hi Clare,
    Thanks for visiting my blog. I've been thinking it's time to take this post down, but I keep getting comments, which is great. What happened with Lance Armstrong just made me sad. And Sulci's comment about every mercenary who returns in a body bag being a hero made me cringe.
    I've thought a lot about this since I wrote this post. And I think what I've come up with is this: There are many men and women I admire. I don't necessarily want to be like them, but I can look at their accomplishments and appreciate the sacrifice it took to do those things.
    There are everyday heroes, too. The kid who jumps into a river to save someone. That pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson River. They don't become household words, but they dove into the fray on a split second's notice because it was the right thing to do. I admire them just as much as "lifetime" heroes.
    Without trying to sound corny, I think we all have the potential to be a hero. We all don't have the opportunity. In a way, you're a hero every time you save a sick animal's life. And I was a hero every time I kept a suicidal patient alive long enough for them to find hope. It's all in your perspective.

  9. Yes, good discussion. Bear with me, I just got off a 24-hour work shift. So...perhaps the definition of a hero is not decided by that individual. I mean to me, if I'm saving an animal I don't look at it like I'm doing anything necessarily heroic. But to the owners of that animal, perhaps I am. It just never occurs to me NOT to do it.

    If I look up the definition of hero on dictionary.com, one definition says, "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." So maybe that "opinion of others" is a large part of it.

    Perhaps there are different types of heroes then, like you are saying - local heroes, everyday heroes, "lifetime" heroes. Maybe we need different words for these. Like how some languages have distinctions for certain things while others just have one word because culturally, there isn't a need for more distinction.

    1. You make an excellent point, Clare, when you say it never occurs to you NOT to do it. I don't think people who engage in heroic acts sit by running the odds in their minds before they act. They see a situation, know they can make a difference--or think they can--and simply dive in. Of course, that doesn't always work. We had a tragedy here in the Eastern Sierra about twenty years ago. We used to have a group home near Convict Lake. Some of the kids went out onto the ice one winter's day. It wasn't thick enough. So a couple of counselors went after them. they died, too. In all, about 8 people lost their lives that day.

      We lost three ski patrollers in a fumarole on Mammoth Mountain in much the same way. The perimeter around the fumarole was obscured by all the snow we'd had. One patroller fell in. Ignoring every rule they'd ever been taught, two more jumped in after him. There's a statue to the three of them next to the fence that's now around the fumarole.

      I don't mean to be quite so grim, but heroism is doing what needs to be done. I'm sure the animals that didn't make it live somewhere in your head. I know that my patients who didn't make it live in mine. I have a lot of MD friends. We sometimes talk about things like that. When I taught at the residency, we had M&M (morbidity and mortality) meetings after patient deaths to process what we could have done differently and to try to assess if it would have made a difference.

      I like your idea about how language defines things. The Eskimos have many words for snow. Maybe we need more than one word for hero.

  10. Nice blog! And that's an interesting topic, indeed... Everyone needs heroes, of course, yet your post reminded me of a famous saying here in Bulgaria: Every evil leads to something good... (can't remember the English interpretation, sorry). I guess this is the thought we should remember every time when we try to judge someone's deeds and decide on which side he/she is, whether he/she is a hero or on the contrary...
    I guess you'll like a suggestion of mine a little off the theme? Using sites like zazzle.com, cafepress. com, fiverr? They could be a good way to promote your works/blog,etc and to help "remove" stupidity in the streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge-magnets, cups, etc: My Boyfriend kisses Better Than Yours, FBI - female body inspector, etc. Not everything we see and think of should be about sex, right? It would be much better if there were more nice pictures (even of mythical creatures), good thoughts, poems (from any genre are welcome I guess), etc? I'm allanbard there, I use some of my illustrations, thoughts, poems from my books (like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hottest fire there's a bit of water, money are amongst the last things that make people rich, or

    Love and happiness will be around,
    as all the chains will disappear,
    and Mountaineers will climb their mount
    and there won't be any tear!

    Such lines are better i guess than the usual we see every day? Best wishes! Keep up the good work! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of the water dragons' hunters - my Tale Of The Rock Pieces).

    1. Thanks for the compliments, Allan Bard. Maybe it's not coincidental that one of my climbing and ski mountaineering heros was named Alan Bard (yes, he spelled his name with one 'l', I think). He died climbing Grand Teton and it was a real loss here in the Eastern Sierra. There's a peak named after him on the way up to Aspendell out of Bishop, California.
      All the best to you as well. Your Tale of the Rock Pieces sounds intriguing.


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