“The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles – preferably of his own making – in order to triumph.”
― Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain
I just learned last week that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter. I was not upset. Personally, when I saw Honest Abe wield his silver forged axe in Tim Burton’s revisionist film, I was impressed. Sadly, critics and historical experts derided Sir Tim’s turn of the screw treatment of our thirteenth president, questioning how a great American hero could have found the time to rid the South of slavery and defeat the undead at the same time. I kept an open mind. I’m used to finding out new and disturbing things about those I admire.
We live in a fiber optic era where it has become in vogue to demythologize everything. We worship perfection producing dysfunction-free digital vacation photographs, buy genetically modified pets and cosmetically alter ourselves seeking to avoid the indignity of imperfection. Despite our lust for perfection, we love to tear down the pedestals that elevate others. We secretly long for someone worthy to follow but now are able to get so close to one another that we resent the blemishes and imperfections that we inevitably find. We are in search of the perfect hero but cannot find them.
The age of ten is innocence’s high water mark for any adolescent boy. When you are emerging from the chrysalis of childhood into the world of men, you are tribal and look to attach yourself to things – movements, ideas, teams and if you are really lucky, a thirteen year old girl. In the early 70’s, my wellspring of passion was overflowing with the need to define myself beyond my white picket world. I followed professional sports teams and players – flashing statistics and personal insights like a switchblade. Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, I daydreamed about meeting one of my sport’s heroes, perhaps even rescuing them from a burning car wreck or insane fans.
“Hey, Wilt, quick! Get on the back of my bike.” I would begin to pedal furiously as the seven foot Laker star grabbed my waist. Soon the throng of adoring women would be a distant memory. (Years later, I would learn that Wilt had actually been running towards the women, not away from them. But, hey, this is a family newspaper.)
My idols in the summer of 1972 overflowed from a generous cup of amateur and professional athletes and beloved public figures. I cheered for gold medalist swimmer Mark Spitz, and yelled for the underdog USA boxers who were taking on the dreaded Communist elite from Eastern Europe and Cuba in the Munich. That baseball season, I followed the every move of Pete Rose, the hyperactive Cincinnati Red known as Charlie Hustle.
Weeks later, I declared to my father that I would be an astronaut but was secretly uncertain whether I could hold my bladder to the moon and back — as the idea of peeing in my spacesuit was too gross to consider. Years later, Tom Wolfe would infer that at least some of these astronauts indeed had zippers. I switched gears and decided to become a cop. I shivered with delight at the notion of carrying a 44 magnum like Dirty Harry, resolving society’s problems and ridding my community of the social weeds that grew between the cracks of our fractured moral foundations. I admired my father for his strength and creative profanity and for a brief period decided advertising would be fun –especially if they let you curse at work.
Years later, I would be subjected to kiss and tell biographies and that would deconstruct my idols into troubled souls and demagogues.. While they accomplished great things, life often proved to be a zero sum game where public accomplishment masked personal failure. When we learned that our Gods were merely mortals flying to close to the sun, we became despondent and cynical. We were obsessed with learning the truth and felt cheated for having held a mere human in such high esteem. We watched with Schadenfreude fascination the painful character autopsies of our icons. Camelot was indeed polluted and Eden was, in fact, corrupted by man and his appetites. We were all mortal, put our pants on the same way, and in a few cases, took them off in public.
Personally, I refuse to live in a godless, dystopic society. I appreciate heroes because they are flawed. They are human. They rise above others simply by getting up and dusting themselves off. My heroes are measured not by where they have ended up but by how far they have come. I have come to appreciate that how winners achieve their success is as important as how much they actually achieve. Those I admire take risks and are unwilling to allow someone else’s opinion of them to define them. They are mothers and fathers. They are cops, soldiers, teachers and executives. They are divorced. They are single. They look for opportunities to be of service and defend those who cannot protect themselves. They suffer from bouts of self-pity and vanity and like all of us, vacillate between self-loathing and self-worship. In the end, they come to recognize that they have a higher purpose and their acts of humanity shine brighter than their own self serving shadow.
My heroes are Republicans, Democrats, hail from every ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and creed. They include Mohamed Yunis who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his concepts promoting micro-finance and community banking and was also accused of being a loan shark and political opportunist. They were peace makers and diplomats like Gandhi and James Baker who were accused of everything from megalomania to closet imperialism. Some are politicians. Lincoln and John Adams were both maligned in their time and paid heavy prices for their convictions in their personal lives. They are ex-boozers like Bill Wilson who started Alcoholics Anonymous and saved a million lives and Lt Mike Murphy, medal of Honor winner who died while serving our country in the Kandar Province of Afghanistan.
If you dig deep enough, you find heroes everywhere. They are all around us. And, they have big noses, flawed resumes, scars and can’t fit into size 38″ trousers. We are preprogrammed to lie, covet, gossip, err and lose our way. Yet, heroes overcome their poor choices and circumstances to achieve greatness across a range of professions. They are mirror reflections of what is best and worst within each one of us, reminding everyone of our incredible capacity for good and our potential to be change agents in a society that desperately needs role models. My heroes never left. I left them. Sinners, some say, make the best saints.
And yes, even after learning that Lincoln lied about moonlighting as a vampire killer, I still admire the guy.