December 10, 2010


DD and SI
This week marked the anniversary of John Lennon's assassination.  I've long considered John Lennon a personal hero, but as I listened to my favorites of his songs I came to realize that he was not my only dead hero.  In fact, as I thought on the matter, I discovered that not only were the bulk of my heroes dead (on in many cases, fictional), but they had never in fact lived during my lifetime.  I had no overlap at all.

I thought more and more on this.  The sixties and seventies were FULL of heroes- people that the vast majority of American children could look up to, to aspire to be like.  John Lennon, Neil Armstrong, President Kennedy, Dr. King, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Marylin Monroe...

I wracked my brain for hours, and although I came up with several people alive I might call heroes, or who sub-sections of my generation might revere, the only universal hero figure I could come up with for my lost generation was Michael Jordan.

Our sports figures were largely despicable, if not outright criminal.  Our pop and rock icons were constantly on drugs.  Our music began not only to glorify violence and crime, but in some genres to attempt nothing but simple shock.  Our politicians were more and more disgusting.  Our movie and television stars completely detached.  Of course we had no universal heroes, none of our celebrities was worth emulating.

SI is finally walking!  DD is unimpressed.
So, how on earth does this have anything to do with parenting, right?

I imagine explaining who John Lennon was to my children.  And then I imagine who might be their heroes when they're at the critical age when children crave adult figures that inspire.  I remember finding those people in textbooks, or in my parents' CD library, or in made up stories.  I remember how many children in my school had Michael Jordan all over them- their shoes and their backpacks and their trapper keepers...

Who will my children look up to?  And will there be anyone to look up to at all?

More and more, I fear the answer is 'no.'  I think that one of the most important problems is that our society has become so focused on the negative.  We don't hear stories about the inspiring things our celebrities do, we hear about Michael Vick's dog fighting, Ben Rothlisberger's sexual assaults, Brittany Spear's nth rehab visit, Tiger Woods and John Edwards' infidelities... and this is the trend my generation learned to expect.  We grew up in a society that constantly shreds our idea of a hero.  We grew up to be cynical, and cynics can't maintain a hero.  I remember a line I found hilarious on 30 Rock last season, when a airline pilot made a comment about Sully Sullenburger, who successfully landed his full jet on the Hudson losing an engine: "You know what I would have done?  NOT flown into the birds.  That's what I do every day, NOT hit birds.  Where's MY ticket to the Grammy's?"

But a dead person- or a fictional person- they can't be torn down.  They're whoever you want them to be, and it lasts forever.  And that's the most important element of a hero- they are in some way perfect, in some way exactly what you want to be.

We need heroes.  I'm not saying heroes are dead, but I am saying it's too late for my generation.  And if it's our job to provide heroes for our own kids, they might be out of luck.

I have no idea who my children will admire.  I fear they will be the same despicable celebrities of the present.  And I don't know where to look for heroes, having never really found any of my own.

Nothing is better than a book
I can pass along my own heroes, the dead and the unreal.  I can share my Mars comics and their super-smart female scientist lead, I can share my John Lennon music and their message of love and understanding, I can share my Tolkien novels, and the healthy morals within their pages.  But I know that as much as I loved those people during my own youth, they couldn't replace a true hero.  A real person I could look to.

I know that most people consider their parents their heroes, but that is a different sort of hero.  It's the constant role model and assistant, not the distant ideal.  And that distant ideal, I believe, is critical.  And the loss of those heroes is why I believe the only heroes most of us have ARE our parents.  Parents shouldn't be lone heroes.

Parents are fallible.  Parents make mistakes.  Parents make you do your homework and go to bed, and in hindsight that makes them wonderful, but at the time it makes you WISH SO HARD that... your hero was your dad, or your mom.  If Gandalf was my dad, he'd let me get another kitten.  If Mommy was Morgana, she'd let you make experimental beverage concoctions for lunch.  If Pippi was my sister, we'd NEVER fight.

Kids need heroes to write letters to, to collect autographs from, to hold onto as beacons of an alternate universe that was perfect once they're adults in a flawed world.

I have no hero to connect me to a perfect childhood.  And every hero I do have is somehow tragic, tainted by my own cynicism.    I don't want that for my girls, I want them to have heroes.

I just can't imagine what it's like.


  1. Jim Henson was my hero as a child. Then I got older, and various teachers became my heroes. I'm still meeting heroes today.

    My heroes were not dead; they were real people I could see, that I admired and wanted to be like. They're not perfect, which is an important part of their charm. They love to work, and are happy to find and fix their own mistakes.

    Jim Henson has now died, but I still study his work. I appreciate him More now that I'm old enough to see the flaws, the complex decisions and compromises.

    Your children will find their own heroes. I hope you do as well.

  2. Noam Chomsky.
    Poor, poor Ralph Nader.
    There are a lot of heroes out there, but they are not so well-known. There are a lot of scientists, philosophers and yogis on my hero list, and Bruce Cockburn, of course. They're not exactly pop-culture faves.

    Heroes don't get a lot of play, unless they also have scandal. There are not many heroes with scandal. And also, everyone is scrutinized so much, nothing is sacred. Every lie you've ever told will somehow make it's way to twitter. There's more truthiness these days.
    Speaking of,
    Steven Colbert is definitely one of my heroes.

    I am so, so tired. Does this make sense? Where am I? Loooove yooooous.

  3. Sage- this is precisely what I mean! The heroes out there are NOT well known. They are NOT universal. In previous generations, heroes could be shared by nearly an entire class of children, now we each search endlessly for our own personal heroes, and generally find them flawed, and not until we've reached an age to seek them out. When we are past their need.

    My greatest hero is Calvin Coolidge. I have so much pity and respect for that man, and aspire to accomplish even a fraction of what he did, only without the whole horrific failure and destruction at the end. Some day I might write a novel about him...

    At any rate, what I'm particularly lamenting is the lack of a universal hero. A hero where you can say their name to the other children, and while they might not completely agree, they know who you're talking about and understand the appeal.

    If I had said "Ralph Nader is my hero" at age eight, I think the other kids would have thought I was crazy. Not that they didn't already...

  4. Perfection is bad! People are not perfect; each person is a set of compromises. We gain wisdom based on mistakes and persistence. Love other people as the humans they are, not the beacons you could imagine them to be. Choose achievable goals, not hopeless ideals.

    And our heroes do not need to be world famous, any more than our spouses do. -I- know why they're my heroes. I can talk about them with other people who know them, and they'll understand. I can summarize: I like artistic teachers. Teachers of art, math, music, who love their jobs. A friend said "I want to be Lowry Burgess when I grow up!" and I understood and agreed.

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  6. I understand the lack of a universal hero, but, perhaps universal heroes can only live when the person behind them has died. Real people are always fractured and complicated.

    A few years ago I realized that not only are none of my heroes alive but none of them were ever real. All the ideals and strengths that I tried to model myself after came from books and fictional characters. Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved; Tanis, half-elven; Edmond Dantes; Don Quixote; Huma; Jonathan Livingston Seagull; Taran, the assistant pig-keeper; Santiago, the shepherd... all fictional and most fractured.

    For 25 years this was more than enough for me, but, I started looking for someone in real life to be my hero. I found a few people around me that I wanted to be more like, inspiring friends.

    Let their hero's be long gone, let them be immortal, and let them be personal and I'm sure it will be all right.

  7. Being 53 years old probably makes a big difference in how I see heroes. I no longer expect anything approaching perfection, but instead will settle for A) some aspect of them that I find heroic, and B) nothing about them so horrible that I can't bring myself to call them heroes. By that reduced standard, I have plenty of heroes.

    For example, my newest hero is Julian Assange, because I consider his work with Wikileaks heroic and because I simply don't believe the nastier charges against him. Similarly, I consider Steve Jobs a hero because of his relentless devotion to excellence in technology design, despite the fact that I view as deeply wrong-headed his antipathy to open systems.

    A hero is someone who is deeply admirable in at least one regard. If there were really someone that admirable in every regard, I would call him not a hero, but a god.



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