Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?

In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May laments the loss of the “hero” in modern society, arguing that the loss of heroes makes it difficult for the individual to “find their own ideals, courage, and wisdom in the society:”

The myth of the homeland is symbolized by the hero, upon whom are projected the highest aims of the community. Without the hero the community lacks a crucial dimension, for the hero is typically the soul of the community. Heroes are necessary in order to enable the citizens to find their own ideals, courage, and wisdom in the society. “Society has to contrive some way to allow its citizens to feel heroic,” said Ernest Becker. “This is one of the great challenges of the twentieth century.” We hunger for heroes as role models, as standards of action, as ethics in flesh and bones like our own. A hero is a myth in action.

Through our projection we become more like our hero, as Hawthorne illustrates in his story, “The Great Stone Face.” The main character in this tale lives in view of the mountain, the top rocks of which form a heroic face. It had been predicted that someday a noble man would arrive whose face would bear an undeniable likeness to the great stone face. Hawthorne’s hero spends his life doing good for his fellow villagers, looking up at the great stone face and waiting for its likeness to come. When he is an old man, the people suddenly recognize that his face is the likeness of the great stone face on the mountain top.

The hero carries our aspirations, our ideals, our beliefs. In the deepest sense the hero is created by us; he or she is born collectively as our own myth. This is what makes heroism so important: it reflects our own sense of identity, and from this our own heroism is molded. When my book, Paulus: Reminiscences of a Friendship, was published, one reviewer attacked it on the grounds that I seemed to make a hero of Paul Tillich. This was dangerous in our twentieth century, continued the critic, because it left the way open for hero worship, as was shown in the followers of Adolf Hitler, who used heroism demonically. One can sympathize with this argument, since the heroism which was cultivated by Hitler surely led to the greatest acts of destruction in our world’s history. But we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Lacking heroes in the 1990s, we are unable to live out our myth of communal aims and ideals in society.

I was reading an article the other day about Phil Ochs, a folksinger noted for his anti-Vietnam protests songs, not to mention his protest of American society in general, as shown in his most famous song “Outside a Small Circle of Friends.” The article pointed out that Ochs’ childhood hero was John Wayne, which caused him great angst when he found himself opposed to the war and diametrically opposed to Waynes’ values as shown in “The Green Berets.” I, too, grew up idolizing Wayne’s movie persona, and complained bitterly after my own war experiences that Wayne, like Reagan, had been brainwashed by their movie roles. Drill sergeants often told trainees “Don’t try to be a John Wayne” because in modern warfare that will get you killed.

May’s argues not only have we lost our heroes, we confuse heroes with “celebrities” and with “billionaires:”

One problem is that we have confused celebrities with heroes. The definition is still valid, “A celebrity is someone who is known for being known.” From the Nielsen ratings on down, from the society pages to the shining advertisements we get in every mail begging us to accept ten million dollars from some gentleman’s hands, there are “celebrities” with phony invitations. But rare indeed is the genuine hero.

Often in America we confuse heroism, following the movement called yuppies, with the making of the most money. In a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, Ivan Boesky, the billionaire Wall Street trader and role model of many yuppies during the 198os, stated, “There is nothing wrong with greed.” The enthusiastic cheering of the audience filled the hall, how much of it curiosity rather than hero worship it is impossible to say. But at the very moment this book is being written, Ivan Boesky is in prison serving time for illegal trading on the stock market and for criminal activity on Wall Street. He not only went to prison himself but implicated a number of his colleagues along with him. One wonders what Boesky now feels, as he looks out from prison, when he remembers his statement about greed, “After making a successful deal you can feel good about yourself!”

I suspect this is even truer now than it was when May wrote it, considering the number of “reality” television shows on the air. It’s hard to see why anyone would want to emulate the Kardashians, much less Paris Hilton, and her ilk.

Of course, the whole issue becomes even more confused when we realize that the media enjoys tearing heroes down even more than they do holding them up as models. Todays’ celebrity is tomorrow’s tragedy, though more often than not they’re portrayed more as clowns than tragic figures.

Of course, it’s not easy to find real heroes, so the media sometimes resorts to producing their own hero:

It is our fake heroes who give heroism such a bad name. Oliver North apparently was considered a hero by President Reagan and a number of his countrymen. North clearly broke laws, the full extent of which is not yet known. Is it any wonder that we have few heroes today?

There are times when I wonder how the media now defines “hero.” Too often it seems synonymous with “victim.” McCain is sometimes called a hero because he survived after being shot down over North Vietnam. He might have been brave to resist his captors attempts to make him condemn his country, but that’s hardly my definition of a “hero.” He was a victim of the war, and little more. A pilot who crashed in Bosnia and then eluded capture for several days until he could be airlifted out was also hailed as a hero, but, once again, I had a hard time seeing him as anything but a victim of the war. All veterans deserve credit for serving their country, but to call them all heroes renders the word meaningless, as well as powerless.

May feels one of the main reasons for this loss of heroes is the decline of the humanities:

I am deeply troubled by the decline of the humanities in the United States, for it is there that students come into contact with the best of Western literature. A graduate professor of English literature in a western university states that in his class there are five students, while in the graduate classes of computer science across the hail there are three hundred. We seem to have forgotten Max Frisch’s statement, “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” It is the what of human existence rather than the how for which we are famished. These cry out from our unread classics and the riches of history and the untouched literature of all centuries. But the cry for the study of myths is heard as a still small voice on many campuses. Martin Luther King, one of the few authentic twentieth-century heroes, dared to dream, and he risked life and limb in his consecration to bringing that dream into reality.

Of course, as Maslow pointed out in Religions, Values and Peak-Experience, “And so today, a very large proportion of our artists, novelists, dramatists, critics, literary and historical scholars are disheartened or pessimistic or despairing, and a fair proportion are nihilistic or cynical (in the sense of believing that no “good life” is possible and that the so called higher values are all a fake and a swindle). Still, I remember hanging on desperately to To Kill a Mockingbird as our high school shuffled classes because it seemed to me that Atticus Finch was one of the few believable heroes in contemporary fiction.

May cites a study by Arthur Levine in When Dreams and Heroes Died

[This] information reveals, among other things, that students today are overwhelmingly materialistic, cynical about society and its institutions (including higher education)-and so competitive about grades that they condone cheating. More significantly, their aspirations are inward, personal, and individualistic rather than social or humanitarian, reflecting the “me first” philosophy that has pervaded the nation in the past decade.*

as proof that there is a real crisis among younger people. I guess everyone will have to make this judgement for themselves, but I suspect this is one of the reasons why I don’t want to see many contemporary movies. Judging from the coming-attractions I saw at the theater yesterday perhaps even film makers see a need for new heroes, though I’m not sure The Green Lantern is quite my kind of hero.

If May is right that:

Our heroes carry our aspirations, our ideals, our hopes: our beliefs, for they are made of our myths. In the profound sense the hero is created by us as we identify with the deeds he or she performs. The hero is thus born collectively as our own myth. This is what makes heroism so important: it reflects our own sense of identity, our combined emotions, our myths.

Then it’s not surprising that so many young people are disillusioned and looking in all the wrong places for happiness. Celebrities, who more often than not are in the headlines because of their problems, do not a make good role models. Nor, for the most part, do the super wealthy. The last athlete who seemed like a good role model to me was Charles Barkley when he said, “A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?”

3 thoughts on “Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?”

  1. I think one hurdle potential heroes have to negotiate these days is Too Much Information. Anybody you can name has a few character flaws, and these days those flaws are available for all the world to see.

    As long as perfection is the standard, we won’t have heroes.

  2. I agree, especially with a media that seems to specialize in exposing those weaknesses.

    I don’t think anyone, including real heroes could ever be “perfect,” nor should they be expected to be. In fact, I would argue the most likely heroes are those who manage to transcend their weaknesses and, in the end, do the right thing.

  3. Interesting post, Loren and a difficult one to reply to as you have covered the subject so well.

    I think we all have our heroes and they are very personal ones – that is certainly true for me. I do also agree about the cult of celebrity – it always makes me smile when some so-called celebrity has a “This is your life” type of programme done on them when they are about twenty four years old.

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