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Heroism: Why Heroes are Importantby Scott LaBarge
When I was 16 years old, I read Henry David Thoreau's book
Walden for the first time, and it changed my life. I read about
living deliberately, about sucking the marrow out of life, about
not, when I had come to die, discovering that I had not lived,
and I was electrified. Somehow he convinced me that living deliberately
meant becoming a philosopher, and I have not looked back since.
And I try as often as I can to remind myself of Thoreau's warning
to all philosophy professors: "There are nowadays professors
of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to
profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher
is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school,
but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates,
a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.
It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically,
but practically." If - horrible thought - I should fail
to earn tenure here, I would largely blame that damned quotation.
But even if that disaster should strike, I know I would find
solace by asking how Henry would respond to such a setback,
and I know I would be a better man by following his example.
Thoreau is one of my dearest heroes, and I do not know who I
would be without him.
The term "hero" comes from the ancient Greeks. For
them, a hero was a mortal who had done something so far beyond
the normal scope of human experience that he left an immortal
memory behind him when he died, and thus received worship like
that due the gods. Many of these first heroes were great benefactors
of humankind: Hercules, the monster killer; Asclepius, the first
doctor; Dionysus, the creator of Greek fraternities. But people
who had committed unthinkable crimes were also called heroes;
Oedipus and Medea, for example, received divine worship after
their deaths as well. Originally, heroes were not necessarily
good, but they were always extraordinary; to be a hero was to
expand people's sense of what was possible for a human being.
Today, it is much harder to detach the concept of heroism from
morality; we only call heroes those whom we admire and wish
to emulate. But still the concept retains that original link
to possibility. We need heroes first and foremost because our
heroes help define the limits of our aspirations. We largely
define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals --
things like courage, honor, and justice -- largely define us.
Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would
like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy.
A person who chooses Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony
as a hero is going to have a very different sense of what human
excellence involves than someone who chooses, say, Paris Hilton,
or the rapper 50 Cent. And because the ideals to which we aspire
do so much to determine the ways in which we behave, we all
have a vested interest in each person having heroes, and in
the choice of heroes each of us makes.
That is why it is so important for us as a society, globally
and locally, to try to shape these choices. Of course, this
is a perennial moral issue, but there are warning signs that
we need to refocus our attention on the issue now. Consider
just a few of these signs:
o A couple years ago the administrators of the Barron Prize
for Young Heroes polled American teenagers and found only half
could name a personal hero. Superman and Spiderman were named
twice as often as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Lincoln. It
is clear that our media make it all too easy for us to confuse
celebrity with excellence; of the students who gave an answer,
more than half named an athlete, a movie star, or a musician.
One in ten named winners on American Idol as heroes.
o Gangsta rap is a disaster for heroism. Just this week, director
Spike Lee lamented the fact that, while his generation grew
up idolizing great civil rights leaders, today young people
in his community aspire to become pimps and strippers. Surely
no one wants their children to get their role models from Gangsta
rap and a hyper materialistic, misogynistic hiphop culture,
but our communities are finding it difficult to make alternative
role models take hold.
o And sometimes, the problem we face is that devotion to heroes
is very strong, but directed toward the wrong heroes. In the
Muslim world, Osama bin Laden and his like still have a widespread
heroic appeal. We can tell how we are doing in the struggle
for Muslim hearts and minds by the degree to which this continues
to be true.
So what must we do? How should we address the problem? Part
of the answer is personal. It never hurts us to remind ourselves
who our own heroes are and what they represent for us, and to
ask ourselves whether we are doing all we can to live up to
these ideals. Not long ago there was a movement afoot to ask
always, "What would Jesus do?" I'd like to see people
asking questions like that, about Jesus or others, all the time.
I confess I get a little thrill every time I see a protest poster
asking, "Who would Jesus bomb?" That's heroism doing
its work, right there. Moreover, those of us who are teachers
- and all of us are teachers of our own children at least -
have a special opportunity to introduce heroes to those we teach.
And teaching about heroes really isn't hard; heroic lives have
their appeal built in, all we need to do is make an effort to
tell the stories. I assure you, the reason those students didn't
choose Lincoln and King and Gandhi as heroes was not that they
had heard their stories and dismissed them. It is our job to
tell the stories. Tell your students what a difference people
of courage and nobility and genius have made to the world. Just
tell the stories! We should recommit to that purpose. Start
by going home tonight and listing your five most important heroes.
But part of the answer to our problem is broader. It is clear
that the greatest obstacle to the appreciation and adoption
of heroes in our society is pervasive and corrosive cynicism
and skepticism. It was widely claimed not long ago that 9/11
signalled the end of irony, but it is clear now that the reports
of irony's death were greatly exaggerated. This obstacle of
cynicism has been seriously increased by scandals like the steroids
mess in Major League Baseball, by our leaders' opportunistic
use of heroic imagery for short term political gain, and by
the Pentagon's stories of glorious soldiers like Jessica Lynch
and Pat Tillman that - by no fault of the soldiers involved
- turned out to be convenient fabrications.
The best antidote to this cynicism is realism about the limits
of human nature. We are cynical because so often our ideals
have been betrayed. Washington and Jefferson held slaves, Martin
Luther King is accused of philandering and plagiarizing, just
about everybody had sex with someone they shouldn't, and so
on. We need to separate out the things that make our heroes
noteworthy, and forgive the shortcomings that blemish their
heroic perfection. My own hero Thoreau had his share of blemishes.
For instance, although he was supposed to be living totally
independently out by Walden Pond, he went home to Mother on
the weekends. But such carping and debunking misses the point.
True, the false steps and frailties of heroic people make them
more like us, and since most of us are not particularly heroic,
that may seem to reduce the heroes' stature. But this dynamic
pulls in the other direction as well: these magnificent spirits,
these noble souls, amazingly, they are like us, they are human
too. And perhaps, then, what was possible for them is possible
for us. They stumbled, they wavered, they made fools of themselves
- but nonetheless they rose and accomplished deeds of triumphant
beauty. Perhaps we might do so too. Cynicism is too often merely
an excuse for sparing ourselves the effort.
Again, the critical moral contribution of heroes is the expansion
of our sense of possibility. If we most of us, as Thoreau said,
live lives of quiet desperation, it is because our horizons
of possibility are too cramped. Heroes can help us lift our
eyes a little higher. Immanuel Kant said that "from the
crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."
That may well be true. But some have used that warped, knotted
timber to build more boldly and beautifully than others, and
we may all benefit by their examples. Heaven knows we need those
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