I regularly get comments on my YouTube videos along the lines of “You’re my hero” which is, of course, nice but also more than a little weird for me. I always assume people don’t mean it literally, if they were put on the spot they’d admit they didn’t really mean I was their hero – the wanted to be positive and supportive and that was an easy way to express it. I’m perfectly comfortable with someone liking what I do, agreeing with what I say or maybe how I say it. Even being inspired by what I do and wanting to somehow emulate it themselves.
But the term “hero” is dangerous if taken too far. If I could offer one piece of advice on the topic it would be “don’t have heroes”. Role models are great. Aspiring to match great achievements is awesome. But declaring someone to be your hero is very dangerous for one simple reason: heroes don’t exist. They are fictional constructs.
People achieve great things. People can stun you with their ability to triumph over odds that seem impossible. People are capable of heroic acts – self sacrifice on a scale that takes your breath away. But people aren’t heroes. People are people. They can’t be heroes 24 hours a day and it’s ridiculous to expect them to be that way.
The only possible outcome of holding someone up as a flawless hero is crushing disappointment when they fail to live up to that ideal. And they will fail. Everybody stumbles at some stage. Everyone has their bad points. Sometimes a person held up as a hero has truly horrible failings.
I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time, the idea first occurred to me when a particular celebrity murdered his family and committed suicide. I remember being shocked when a friend said he was doubly upset by the news because he’d always regarded this guy as a hero. I was shocked because it seemed like a pretty sucky hero to have but it made me think about the idea of being failed by your heroes.
Let’s leave the idea of anyone as shallow as celebrities or sports people being a worthwhile hero and look at people who have been called heroes because they did truly great things for other people, not for themselves.
Fred Hollows was an eye doctor who decided it was unacceptable that so many people in Australian aboriginal communities were being blinded by treatable conditions like trachoma. He dedicated his life to treating people who were being ignored by the world. He perfected a low cost, effective procedure and taught others to do it so it wasn’t just that he saved the sight of thousands by himself, he set things up so that even after his death his Foundation continues this work around the world.
So what’s not to like? He’s a hero, right? No. He’s a human. A human who did great things but still a flawed, mortal human being. I heard him interviewed once and he went on this bizarre rant saying that homosexuality should be outlawed because that’s how AIDS was spread. He was by no means a stupid man but he was clearly homophobic and this bigotry caused a huge blind spot for him. (It wasn’t until I wrote that line that I realised it would look like I was trying to make a joke. Insert your own “no surgery would heal his blindness” line here.)
Now of course some people would say he’s even more of a hero for speaking out against what he saw as promiscuity and the evil of the “homosexual lobby” but those people are morons and I’m not talking to them.
I find his opinions in this area not only reprehensible but also, frankly, stupid and unsupportable. First, gay sex is not the only disease vector for AIDS, it isn’t even the primary disease vector in a lot of the communities he was concerned with. Second, leaving aside the morality of wanting to dictate to people how they can live their lives, history shows you can’t successfully legislate morality. It’s an absolute waste of time that not only fails to change people’s behaviour, it usually makes things worse by driving the activity underground which means less protection and often more risky behaviour.
Even with that, Fred Hollows did more good in an average day than most people do in their lifetime. As far as I’m concerned, his life’s work means he’s still worthy of respect and admiration. But he wasn’t a hero. He did great things but he was a human being with all the flaws that involves.
For another example, let’s look at Edward “Weary” Dunlop. He was a surgeon who served in the Australian army during World War 2. He ended up being captured by the Japanese and was one of the many soldiers who suffer the horrors of Changi prison camp and forced labout on the Thai-Burma railway.
If you don’t know what happened in these places, it’s worth reading a little background to understand what Dunlop lived through. The way the Japanese army treated prisoners of war (and civilians for that matter) was some of the most vile, disgusting acts in the history of humanity – far more prisoners died than survived.
As a doctor and an officer he was directly responsible for saving lives and easing the pain of countless other prisoners. He stood up to the brutality of the Japanese and inspired his men to keep going in a situation that would have crushed most people. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear those whose lives he saved call him a hero but like anyone else, he was just a human being. A human who did incredible things and showed almost unbelievable bravery and strength of character. But still human.
After the war, he went back to work as a surgeon and continued to do great work. But apparently he was a bit of a prick as a boss. A real control freak and he didn’t give a shit about anyone who had a problem with how he did things. But you know what? I’ll give him that. After everything he did, he earned the right to be a grumpy old bugger. Because, like other humans, he had flaws.
There are a lot of people who do great things. It’s great to have someone as an inspiration or role model to give us something to aim for. But always remember that even the greatest people are still people and they have flaws. Don’t hold anyone up as a flawless hero because you’ll end up seeing them fail somehow and end up disillusioned. And maybe don’t be so hard on yourself about your own shortcomings because everybody has them. Outside of comic books, heroes don’t exist.
And even those so-called “heroes” wear their underpants on the outside. What’s all that about?