One of my first heroes growing up was Davy Crocket. Like many of you I’m sure, I developed that admiration after watching Fess Parker in the Disney TV series. I got the coonskin cap, plastic toy Alamo set, and a leather bag that I still use to this day to carry stuff for my muzzle loading rifle.
Over time, I’ve acquired a list of other men I look up to and want to emulate – one of the more recent ones include Dick Winters of Band of Brothers fame and William Marshal, “champion” of the Magna Cart and the first earl of Pembroke. Some of my heroes are living and some of them like Marshall and Winters have passed on.
However, they all have something in common.
They are or were flawed. Somewhere, they screwed up. They made mistakes, sometimes big and sometimes small. I’ve observed that when a man is truly great in one area, he lacks in another.
That isn’t a big deal if you understand what a hero is and isn’t. A hero is someone who, obviously, does something heroic. They do something brave or admirable. But they’re not gods. When you treat a hero like a god, they become an idol. You want them to care about you in return.
Idols will always disappoint.
I can’t say exactly when I realized this, but when I was a kid it occurred to me that every hero will at some point let you down. The brave man will cower, the strong man shows weaknesses. The pious man succumbs to base desires. The trusted man is not wholly honest. Or, they’re heroic in one area and cowardly in another. They’re great and brave warriors but terrible husbands and fathers.
Heroes don’t always live up to their image or reputation. In some cases, the failure can destroy their legacy. If you have a healthy view of them, you can be disappointed and saddened, but life will go on because what drew you to them was the ideals they embodied, not themselves. If you worship a hero as an idol, your world and the false religion you adhere to collapses.
Or worse, you reject a hero because he doesn’t live up to unrealistic expectations. He fails, and you deny them the chance to redeem themselves or regain their honor. The tragedy is with you, not him. You see him for something he is not and can never be. This is how I can admire George Washington as a great American while flying a Whiskey Rebellion flag outside my house.
Another problem is you use their life as a template for yours when the context isn’t the same. That was the temptation I had when reading through Dick Winter’s autobiography. I was overwhelmed by his monastic warrior mindset and his ability to endure trials I felt I could not. He had personal standards I felt I could never live up to.
But I must remind myself that Winters was a product of another time and era, born and raised in an environment I was not. He is a hero to me, and I often look to his life for inspiration when I find myself in similar situations. But I don’t make him an idol to worship.
Let’s not misunderstand the point here. History is replete with great men who rose above the crowd. They were braver, stronger, bolder – whatever quality or trait we want to admire. They were better than other men in that regard. They were extraordinary.
But when we idolize, we do two things. We make heroes out to be something they are not. We also deny ourselves the chance to become that which we seek in our heroes, because we’re too busy submitting ourselves to someone else.
Jimmy Stewart’s last lines in his final film seems fitting:
“I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills. But if you ride yonder; head up, eyes steady, heart open… I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for.”