by William Worrell
To many people, the mention of the topic of heroes evokes images of Rambo, John Wayne, and Brett Favre, just to name a few. While others will reply, “There are no heroes!”
Heroes are those people who kids pretend to be, and imagine themselves becoming. Sadly, many of those make-believe characters originated from television or film–and usually are not real life heroes, but rather are fantasy heroes.
This author, while making a presentation on the topic of heroes, took his liberty and conducted an informal survey with the question: “Do you have a hero, and who and why?” The response showed that 75% of the respondents did not have personal heroes in their life, and the 25% who do, name celebrities and sports stars as their heroes.
It is time to set the record straight for the real-life hero. For the record, this author believes heroism is not dead in our society–it is not thriving. Although there are heroes in America, there is a shortage.
American legends: Brave men crossed the Delaware; defended the Alamo and raised the flag at Iwo Jima; Lindy flew to Paris; Armstrong to the moon; the Babe swung and John Wayne and Dr. King marched into history.
Today Americans hear the sports stars haggling over package deals, babbling on talk shows or defending themselves in the courtroom. Paul Simon captured in words the emotions of a generation with, “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio?” With the lyrics Paul Simon was actually asking, Where have all the heroes gone? Those lyrics were penned in the late sixties. Noted psychologist Dr. Kenneth E. Clark makes this observation, “America lacks real-heroes on a national scale”(U.S. News and World Report, June7, 1992, p. 68). Dr. Clark, former president of the American Psychological Association, goes on to add, “This reflects the fragmentation and pluralism of the society, which now lacks universal values and beliefs–so that one person’s hero may be another’s villain” (U. S. News and World Report, June 7, 1982, p. 68). Have our times and values changed that much?
Remember when “men were men” and heroes were heroes? Remember when men (and women!) knew who they were, liked what they were, and did not want to be anyone but who they were? Remember when you were at the movie theatre, and the audience cheered for the good guys? Remember when men modeled a masculinity that displayed security and stability? Remember when kids were encouraged at home and at school to identify real-life heroes?
There was a time when patriotism provided us with all the models and heroes we needed. Remember? There was a time when practically no one had the audacity to even suggest a hint of suspicion against MacArthur, “Ike,” the local policeman, the fire-fighter, or an FBI agent. The policeman on the corner may have been stared at, but it was normally out of respect–not rebellion. Physicians were admired and some seen as heroes and role models.
What has happened? Have Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and Whitewater raped everyone’s trust of other people? Have the Tailhook Scandals or the Vietnam War soured everybody against the military? Where have the real-life heroes gone? Here are the views and feelings of several writers and communicators on this question.
Susan Drucker of Hofstra University makes this observation, “At this point in American history it is hard to escape noticing that there’s a flood of celebrities and a shortage of genuine heroes” (1994, p. 1). On a darker and less optimistic note, we turn to Alan Edelstein, professor of sociology at Towson State University. He states, “America has run out of heroes. There is ample proof, both anecdotal and substantive, that the United States no longer has any heroes–nor has the ability to produce new ones” (Edelstein, 1996, p. 5). Finally, on a more cheerful note, pastor Charles Swindoll states with great clarity,
“Admiration. There’s not much of it today. Maybe that explains the inordinate hunger for fantasy heroes like Batman, Superman, Jack Ryan, and James Bond. There has never been a day when athletic prima donnas had larger fan clubs or weird musical groups bigger crowds–Our society lacks admiration–just as it does genuine real-life heroes.” (1996, p. 364)
Hymn-writer Isaac-Watts’ question should be changed from, “Are there no foes for me to face?” to, “Are there no models for me to follow?” Foes we have, in abundance; models to emulate, we don’t. At least it seems that way.
What Are Heroes and Why Do We Need Them?
Hero for this paper refers to a national hero, a universal American figure around whom Americans would all rally if called. The hero is the man or woman who inspires children or adults, who reflects the finest qualities of the people, and who is recognized by the people as an inspiration, reflecting those qualities the people in a society value and admire. It is the belief of this author that America needs its real-life heroes, now, more than ever before, and that they are absent from culture.
In recent times, celebrities, educators, ministers, and politicians have decried this absence. It is the belief of this author that we need heroes–“persons who will exhibit character and leadership qualities so that we can pull various segments of the country together. People are affected by heroic lives and try to emulate them–admitted or not. There is a great unsatisfied need for heroes” (U.S. News & World Report, June 7, 1988, p. 68).
Some people argue that heroes are reserved solely for children. Yet, heroes are for everyone–regardless of the age. One day Wesley Pippert, 30-year veteran with United Press International, had the opportunity to interview his boyhood hero, Pete Dawkins. The interview took place in one of the Pentagon’s inner rings. Dawkins was the Army’s youngest brigadier general. It was rumored that he was ahead of schedule to become Army Chief of Staff–a post for which some thought him destined even when he was still a student at West Point. Since Pippert knew very little about military science, he wasn’t exactly sure which direction the interview would take. Somehow, it turned to heroes. Dawkins told him,
“It’s terribly important to have heroes. A lot of things that are really central parts of our lives are transcendent or abstract. But its hard for us to deal with courage or dedication or sacrifice in the abstract. We need to have people who embody those qualities, people who are reassuring and real.
Dawkins points out, however, yet as much as we need them and want them, we’re not comfortable with heroes. No culture ever has been, I suppose. Even the Greeks, who ‘invented’ heroes, cast them out. But we seem to turn on ours with a special fervor, driven by an almost compulsive need to scratch and rub anyone of heroic dimension until we find a wart or blemish. We microscopically examine people in public life until we find something about them that is flawed. Only then do we seem content to let them be” (Pippert, 1989, p. 50)
Americans have always taken heroes seriously, and rightly so. Heroes, whether we are aware of it or not, focus the human imagination and thereby shape the values and personalities and influence the behavior of their admirers. Public heroes also provide coherence at a deep level to the society of which they are a part. This is part of what makes our present confusion about heroes particularly troubling. How can they exert this kind of influence if they rise and fall, inflate and deflate like soap bubbles in the wind? It is no small thing because heroism touches the human spirit deeply at so many levels–the psychological, the sociological, and the theological.
You can see the psychological importance of heroism early in a child’s life. “Think of the hats a child puts on–those of the nurse, the fire chief, the soldier. Long before a child is aware of abstract moral rules, he or she has a fertile and active imagination and wants to be very much like certain kinds of people and unlike many others” (Keyes, Christianity Today, p. 29).
Even as we grow older, we are motivated not just by rules and laws, but by stories, by images of flesh and blood people who wear life in a way we find admirable and attractive. If people cannot find a real-life contemporary hero, they will look to the past for a life pattern to follow. On a social level, we do not need to look far to see the impact that people like Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, and Gandhi had on their respective countries and national values.
In reading theology, this observer often finds Christians stating that it is acceptable to have heroes up through early adolescence, but after that, heroism is a negative tied to pride or deception (Keyes, 1988, p. 29). “Whether purposefully or unconsciously, evangelicals have joined in the slaughter. Few heroes are allowed to survive in the church…so, let the church have heroes–the world needs them”(Poynor, Christianity Today, 1984, p. 84).
This is not only a low view of imagination, but it also demonstrates a thin knowledge of the contents of the Bible. We are made in His Image, the God of the Bible is the God of glory, and we are called to reflect something of this glory in our relationship with Him. This is the reason people have such a desire to find a hero–they are driven by a God-given desire to pattern their lives after some one. Heroes provide patterns.
The desire for heroes, properly understood, comes from the need to interact with and reflect the glory of God himself. In this is found true human greatness and excellence, which is focused ultimately in the imitation of Jesus (II Cor. 3:18). Portrayed at its worst, the heroic harnesses the full force of human vanity, self-deception, and cruelty. Heroism is not dead in our society, but, it has and is under seige by powerful forces, two of the most powerful being cynicism and trivialization. Combined, they have brought about a crisis of the imagination that has deeply affected our nation (Keyes, 1988, p. 30).
One of the factors contributing to the lack, and at times absence, of heroes, is that “America has changed its mind (regarding morals and values), and our new republic is showing its stuff at every turn” (Stowell, 1990, p. 13). It is apparent that America has changed its mind when politicians believe they can not get elected without support of abortionists and sodomites; when a public library allows a gay rights group to display and promote homosexuality and related social and political causes, but refuses the same opportunities to the pro-life proponents.
There is a prevailing attitude today that there are no right answers, which is a way of saying there is no right and wrong. The result? Our young people are unable to talk about right and wrong; they don’t know the language of ethics and theology. If there is no agreement on what is right, there can be little consensus about what to admire in heroes. Thus, pop culture “settles” for “limited types of heroes”–the rock stars, the athletes (Psychology Today, May 1986, p. 12). The “pop hero” is a poor substitute for the real-life genuine hero. Writer George Roche makes this ‘flaming’ comment concerning the hero, “Rock stars, movie idols, sports figures, and political celebrities, as well as the occasional ordinary person who acts bravely in an emergency, are the substitutes for absent heroes and are thus a symptom of a paralyzing moral division in America.” (Roche, USA Today, 1988, p.57).
During the late eighties, Sean Connery starred in a movie entitled, Right is Wrong and Wrong is Right. In the course of the film, Connery’s character, a broadcast journalist for a “major” network, is being constantly “ribbed” and reprimanded for his out-of-vogue beliefs of life and morality. In today’s vernacular, he was politically incorrect. The views of the politically correct cut against the grain of those of the real-life hero ( Robertson, 1991, p. 239). Yet, the concept of political correctness is simply another variant of something called cynicism.
After World War II, in America there was a sense of pride, of self-respect, in serving one’s country. But by the time of the war in Vietnam, things had changed. There was a diminished trust in government and therefore an unwillingness to respond to a call to arms. Today that distrust in government and military has expanded to nearly all parts of life. Cynicism has become a part of American life. Cynicism, along with America’s changing values, are the primary reasons that Americans today lack real-life heroes (Edelstein, 1996, p. 139, p. 221).
Our society needs to restore the word “admiration” to its vocabulary. Our cynical, self-centered society would do well to restore an invaluable commodity that has been cast aside, forgotten like a dust-covered treasure: the hero (Swindoll, 1996, p. 365). As that restoration occurs, so will the morale that gave us pride to pull together and passion to stand alone. Our children need it. So do our youth, as well as adults. Individuals we hold in high esteem, in whom the qualities of greatness are incarnated (McKenna, 1989, p. 70). People who mirror the bedrock principle of solid character. Slowly, almost unawares, admiration becomes the carbon paper that transfers character qualities by the rubbing of one life against another.
True heroes challenge the excuse-laden mediocrity of our lives and open us to new possibilities of what might be. Yes, heroes are uncomfortable to live with and are often unwanted. If we debunk and trivialize them, we give ourselves a reprieve from their challenge, and the shame of when we fall short. This reprieve is one of the payoffs of the cynic, or in biblical terms, the scoffer.
The hero shows us by his own example that higher purposes in life, far from being an illusion, are the key to our richest potentials. Our debt to heroes is no metaphor, but the very substance of our free society. Our duty to one another and to moral law is displayed by the hero’s selflessness. The very words we need to think about when we discuss heroes–valor, magnanimity, fortitude, gallantry–rust from disuse (USA Today, November, 1988, p. 58).
What Can Be Done?
In truth, the question is less about heroes than about the framework of belief in which they can, and cannot flourish. The hero gives us a completely fresh, unfailed way of looking at life. The hero yanks us out of the old rut and causes us to reexamine our values and goals.
America has been referred to as “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” Real heroism demands courage. It is time for America to become what the nations of the world expect us to be: the land of the brave and the home of the heroes. Its time for a choice between excellence (a character trait of the hero) or mediocrity (the mark of our current status quo). Examination presupposes that a choice will follow the accompanying data.
Christians have an opportunity to usher in a new era of heroism. In fact, we are commanded to do so. We are to be like Jesus. The Bible is the story about the greatest living hero of all. In the pages of the Bible is given the plan of God to man and to His people. Entrance to the Kingdom of God is an entrance to the school of heroes. Like it or not, Christians are commanded by God to be examples, to be patterns to the world. How? When the recipe for life is followed–the result is the potential to make a difference–the capacity to become an agent for change.
This is why we (the church) need to walk with an openness and freedom before the Lord. People are looking at us and to us. God is calling a people who will walk with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the the ground. Dick Keyes points out that, “the world, looking for the Christian ideal of heroic sainthood, too often sees a church that openly subscribes to a commercial industrial hero system, rather than the excellence of God. The challenge is to show something better in our lives–before one another and before God, as we imitate his Son”(Keyes1988, p. 32). Prior to radio and television, heroes were used to influence behavior and career choices. A heroic figure was a way to communicate an idea. When society needed people to become nurses, it glorified Florence Nightingale (U.S. News & World Report, 1982, p. 82). By contrast today, when we want to affect something, we throw huge amounts of money at the problem by establishing foundations rather than by attempting to create (or allow) heroes for young people to emulate. Dick Keyes, in his article “Lite Champions,” sums up what can be done. He declares, “The challenge is to show something better in our lives, before one another and before God, as we imitate his Son”(Keyes, 1988, p. 20).