Do We Need Heroes?

How Those Who Survived The Great Depression Became The Heroes We Know As “The Greatest Generation”

Heroes. In response to a recent posting, my friend John P. said “bah humbug” (or something similar) to the idea. He sez that heroes are overrated, etc. I did some checking online and see that Scott LaBarge, Santa Clara University ethics scholar, writes that we need heroes because they define the limits of our aspirations.

"In a recent poll, a depressing number...named someone on American Idol as their hero."
I believe his idea is that heroes expand our sense of what’s possible for us humans.

I take issue with John. Heroes can symbolize a group. For example, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and John Adams are American heroes. We catch in them glimpses of the immortal, the virtues we’d like to emulate—the courage, intellect, sense of destiny, vision, and personal sacrifice that we look up to. Yes, it’s a matter of record that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. As repugant as that is, most people put that aside and look to their positive qualities, just as they breeze past the womanizing of JFK and MLK Jr. to laud the positive qualities of those two extraordinary men.

Nevertheless, we expect to find in those we seek to emulate a nobility of character. Our heroes should have the characteristics we value most—courage, self-sacrifice, compassion for the weakest among us. We look at them and we see what bravery looks like—Sergeant York, Audie Murphy; what self-sacrifice and compassion look like—Mother Teresa, the 9/11 rescuers. When we think of them, our souls are lifted up. We speak their names in reverent tones and think that perhaps if I were in such a situation, I’d behave heroically. Beyond that sudden emergency that demands instant action, many heroes simply keep on keeping on—perseverance. Food and shelter for the helpless, visiting the prisoners or going to the elementary school classroom every week to help a kid understand math—all persevering actions. But this modeling of exceptional sacrifice bolsters us. We see the double amputees in military uniform and know that they committed themselves to military service with the foreknowledge that an extreme sacrifice might be required of them. They are heroes by virtue of their commitment.

Can you or I be heroes? Yes, perhaps only a hero to a small group of people, or perhaps to one person; e.g., my son gives of his time on a regular basis to provide a male role model for a fatherless boy. That qualifies him as a hero, in my book. Is that necessary? Consider that an overwhelming percentage of men in our prisons did not have a dad—a male role model—in their home, engaged in their lives.

I haven’t defined what a hero is because all of you reading this will have your own definition. However, we could say that a hero is one who’s performed extraordinary sacrifices for the benefit of others. No question but that heroes impact society. Perhaps for no other reason than that they inspire us.

One last point I’d like to make: the reminder that celebrities and heroes are not the same. This is not to say that celebrities can’t be heroes, or heroes celebrities. In a recent poll, a depressing number of those polled named someone on American Idol as their hero.*

They don’t have a clue.

Another recent aberration involved people—apparently, those with no sense of history—who wore tee-shirts with the likeness of Che Guevara. That guy was nothing but a murdering cutthroat. He ordered the execution of as many as 550 people without trial when he ran the La Cabaña Fortress prison. Later, he tried to incite the people of Bolivia to rebel against their government, fortunately with little success. Known as a revolutionary (why should that be heroic?), he was killed by the Bolivian army with his rag-tag band of thugs. The point being that because someone is a celebrity in some quarters should not justify making them out to be a hero.

Even as heroes were tethered to history by the increase of widespread literacy and record-keeping, their main purpose remained that of inspiring a culture’s members to aspire to its ideals. They were the ones who showed how to live out the principles espoused and valued by a particular culture.

So—who are some of your heroes? Or do you think the idea of heroes is overblown?

*Rush Limbaugh/

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Fathers and Sons, and Daughters, Too
Everyone wants and needs respect, especially from those of their own household.