Illustration by Geralden Morre
Everyone has a role model. Ask the little boy bounding down the hallway with a spring in his step, and he might tell you his is Batman or Optimus Prime. The teenager typing away at her MacBook in the corner might name Sylvia Plath or John Green. Even the people we ourselves place at the apex of our esteem —parents, professors, mentors —at one time or another, we all find someone to look up to.
However, really, what have our role models these days become? When did retweets and Instagram likes take precedence over intellect and altruism? Once upon a time, moving a generation took powerful rhetoric, a dedicated goal and an infectious determination. Now, it takes little more than an eight-figure bank account, a few gigabytes’ worth of selfies and a reality show that pulls in viewers like sardines. What is the point of an idol with a shapely bottom but no brains for back up? A true hero can stir the hearts of the populace like a tidal wave, but today we settle for people who are themselves shallower than a puddle in a parking lot.
Perhaps we are simply afraid. A few decades ago, a man came along with an iron will and a silver tongue. A few years later, his name was screamed to the skies by his men as they scarred Europe — and the world — for life, all in the name of the Aryan race. Maybe that is why we settle for people who are harmless and blasé; what if we build up a hero only to find a monster lurking in his shadow? Still that says more about us than it does any would-be dictator. It implies that we have not learned. Without anyone at his back, a hero is powerless. If the people are the wind billowing his cape and keeping him aloft, we can just as easily be his kryptonite.
As Arthur Conan Doyle once said, “There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.” Although Conan Doyle was referring to a murder mystery, in this day and age, there are very few exceptions to prove the rule, nor do there have to be. It is already a truth near-universally acknowledged in far more areas than just criminology and forensics. We see something new and shrug, It’s been done. Our generation — no — our society, has become jaded. We expect greatness and are seldom disappointed. However, for perhaps that same reason, we are even less frequently satisfied.
The tricky part about heroes starts where most of us are first introduced to the word: with costume-clad vigilantes fighting for nothing more than peace, justice, hope and all those other words that make a child’s heartbeat quicken. Eventually, many of us come to associate the word “hero” with the “superhuman”, as we replace our Spider-Man posters and Wonder Woman cartoons with those of real people. However, sometimes, even as we outgrow superheroes, we fail to shed our expectations of them. We expect the people we place on pedestals to meet the same standards as their predecessors, to be as great as we can only hope to be. Real life does not come with super strength. When we saddle our expectations on the shoulders of others, the weight bears down. All too often, we flatten real people and turn our perception of them into something two-dimensional, as if they belong on the pages of a comic book or in a television screen.
On the other side of the spectrum, sometimes we are guilty of the opposite: romanticizing ordinary people, piling up imagined qualities onto them until our own version of them is barely recognizable from who they actually are. It tends to be subtle, subconscious even, but many of us are guilty of it, and why not? It is easy to do. It is not like it particularly matters to them. To the person doing the imagining, however, it certainly does matter. We build effigies to the people we look up to in our own minds, and sometimes, we cross a boundary. They become more than human to us, and the effigy becomes a bundle of sticks and stones fashioned in their vague image. Once that link between the real person and the hero is threatened, the foundation quivers. Sometimes it is pushed too far, and our idols do something that sparks that most awful of feelings inside us: We are disappointed in them, and this image we have built of them crashes to the ground. It is an awful feeling, but not an unforeseeable one, and sooner or later we realize that the bigger fault is ours — for making someone else into something they are not, effectively burying them under our own wishful graffiti. Once again, the pedestal breaks under the weight of something that is not really there in the first place.
In the end, the purpose of a hero is not to act as a security blanket or an unattainable ideal. A hero is someone we can look up to, but not necessarily be bound to the shadow of. Today, even the Avengers and the Justice League plaster across the big screen, are leaving their technicolor shells — no longer the incorruptible paragons our parents and grandparents grew up with, but real people tormented by the immense weight of their own responsibilities, let alone that which we superimpose on them ourselves. By bringing that turmoil to light, it has become easier to see the orphan behind the black cowl, the sole survivor behind the S-shaped crest, the bored billionaire in a metal suit and the man forcibly plucked from his time and home behind the vibranium shield.
We create our role models by molding them from ordinary people into figureheads of the lives we want to lead. Still, a hero does not have to be a singularity adored by all. Everyone has their own, be it the scientist working to patch up the atmosphere, the author who verbalizes thoughts that never even seem to cross our own minds or simply that one person in our lives, upbeat and unbreakable in the face of everything. The question is not whether they do great things; it is whether they do them for a world that seems hopeless, or in spite of a world that seems hopeless.