In an interview, someone asked who my heroes are, and I had to confess I don't have any. "There are certainly people I admire for their accomplishments, which I consider heroic -- but they're not really personal heroes of mine," I said. In my early years, I fervently admired people as distinct as racing driver Stirling Moss, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, and Marlene Dietrich. Who says a hero can't have great legs?
Heroes are important at early stages in our growth. Our first heroes are probably our parents -- they are so much older, larger, have such power over us, that unless they're toxic, we inevitably look up to them and try to model ourselves after them. I tried to convey this learning process in a short poem once:
When I was small, my parents
were immaculate edifices
Mom with her superstructure of intricate dark hair
Dad’s pipe a smokestack
towering over me so
hugely and maybe they had everything
I needed, on one floor or another
Now that I am larger and
look down on both of them
seeing their imperfections
with the zoom lens of an angel
I wonder how they could betray me
be so human
As the irony of that last line suggests, heroes inevitably turn out mortal -- they have feet of clay, or in the case of Achilles, heels that hurt. When we are young, and cast around for who we might be or become, heroes loom large -- often literally in many children's and teens' rooms, in the gods and goddesses of sports or entertainment on posters. These adored images can be positive when they encourage us to focus our energies and strive harder to achieve a goal. But, the reverse is true as well -- young people can easily become depressed when, despite their best efforts, they don't win Olympic gold, have hair like Farrah Fawcett-Majors, or drop a platinum album by their 18th birthday. The young also experience powerful disillusionment when they discover that their heroes are humans, just as prone to err as the rest of us -- except in a more public way. During the Black Sox baseball scandal, one youngster supposedly demanded of Shoeless Joe Jackson "Say it ain't so, Joe!" Joe couldn't deny his guilt.
One of the lessions of maturity is that people are people, regardless of their level of accomplishment or celebrity. JFK , for example, with an aura that his good looks and tragic death only increased, remains a hero to many. There can be no doubt about his courage, passion for change, or eloquence. But, over the years, it's also become obvious that he was a serial adulterer, probably a sex addict, and made some rash decisions. A hero still? Not to me, although I still admire him for many of his good qualities.
I think, in conclusion, that by the time you reach my advanced age, you'd better be your own hero. The great people you looked up to as a youth are now dead, or revealed to be lesser beings than you thought. Modelling yourself after them may have had positive effects on you, but eventually you have to find your own best qualities and develop those.
So, looking at my own credentials for heroism now, I can't claim a platinum album, a .300 professional batting average, or great legislative progress. But I have traveled much of the world, helped raise a child, developed some skills as as a writer and photographer, published some books, learned to play a few musical instruments, and taught a generation of students to express themselves more clearly and forcefully. That may not be saving the world, but it ain't nothing. Perhaps I'm human too.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace