They say you should kill your heroes.
Of course they don’t mean literally: the expression means that we should kill the idolised, glorified image of our heroes that we hold in our heads, that perfect picture of our favourite rockstar, or writer, or scientist, before they disappoint you.
Recently, I read a collection of autobiographical essays by a writer and actor I really admire. As I’d hoped and expected, the essays were clever, insightful, and relatable. But then, there were a couple of things this hero of mine said that really bothered me, these comments they made which went against some morals which really important to me, and which felt offensive.
This got me thinking about the way we picture our heroes. Everyone has someone they admire, and for nerds like me, these people are often held tightly at the core of our being. A lot of these heroes have made us who we are today, have stopped us feeling so alone, and so they’re a huge part of our identity. We’ve found these people out there in the world, on the internet, in books and graphic novels, on the television or radio, who we can look up to. And it’s amazing to have that kind of role model.
We look to these people for guidance, inspiration, and hope, and hold them in high esteem: sometimes we even see them as superhuman. The problem comes when we believe our heroes can do no wrong, and when they do, it shocks us. Sometimes we deny that they did anything wrong, and we make excuses for them. The fact that we look up to them clouds our judgement, and we say to ourselves: “Well, they didn’t mean it… it was just a harmless joke…” even when our idol has done something we know is morally not ok. We’ll follow them blindly because of the hero we imagine them to be, and there are even occasions when people we deem to be heroes have abused that power we’ve given them.
Sometimes, it’s not that villainous. They just make mistakes, and we find ourselves holding that against them, even when it’s something small and insignificant. Or maybe our hero doesn’t make a mistake, seemingly ever, and the pressure to be like them, this flawless being we see through the lens of our television screen or our laptop becomes pressurizing and painful. How can we ever live up to that? How can we ever be that brave, or wise, or kind?
We forget that our heroes are people too. They’re a person: a messy, complicated, human person, who makes as many mistakes as any one of the seven billion people on this planet. They probably even beat themselves up for these mistakes, much like you and I.
They were never built to be your hero; they weren’t created to make you happy or to give you something to aspire to. As much as we hold them in a position of power, our heroes never asked for this. They never swore an oath to uphold all that is good or to do right by you. We put a lot of pressure on these messy, complex human beings to be what we need them to be. And sometimes when we do that, we actually hurt our heroes as much as ourselves. We’re not perfect, they’re not perfect, and we all go to bed at night wondering if we’ll ever be good enough.
When it comes to killing our heroes, there are a few things we can do:
We can remember that they won’t always hold the same views as we do, that they owe us nothing, and say “They don’t exist for my benefit. It’s ok that we don’t see eye-to-eye on this one”.
We can hold them accountable for their misdeeds and (politely) say “80% of the time, you’re an awesome person. But today, you were in the wrong, and you didn’t show the side of you that I’ve grown to admire”.
And perhaps most importantly, we can accept their flaws and understand that they’re not as perfect as we imagined them to be. In itself, this can be a really great thing. The best heroes are the most human, the ones who face the same daily challenges as we do, and who don’t always succeed.
It’s an amazing thing to have people we can look up to. But at the end of the day, they’re people too.
“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
– John Green, Paper Towns
Featured Image by Elvin, Creative Commons on Flickr.