Boys and Heroes
It’s trendy today to refer to “role models” for boys. Why might that be? Why doesn’t anybody suggest that boys should have “heroes” any more?
One of the casualties of political correctness is the concept of moral excellence. That is, that there are absolute and definable values of good and evil and that some actions and attitudes are better than others. There used to be such things as good people and bad people who did good or bad things. Now, we’re not taught as youngsters to think in terms of right and wrong, but in terms of our own “values.” Hence we don’t learn ethics but values clarification in school. Heaven forbid (if you still believe in heaven) that we should endorse one person’s values over another’s, let alone assert that there are absolutes of good and evil.
This is a far cry from earlier days when it was generally recognized that God was the judge of good and evil and that His opinions were immutable. I’m old enough to remember a time when everybody recognized that there exist absolutes of right and wrong, good and bad, normal and perverted. That the only values that matter are the values that God places on things. It was understood that no man had the right to determine morality for himself but must bow to the Creator of all things and His valuation.
Today, moral judgments are considered out of bounds. Hence, we don’t use the term “hero,” which denotes virtue of character. Mustn’t pass judgment on anybody’s character by suggesting that someone else’s is superior. Rather, we talk about “role models,” which seems to simply mean somebody who is good at something he does. He may or may not give a rip about what’s right and wrong; in fact he may be selfish, rude, promiscuous, boorish and abusive—but he sure can throw a ball through a hoop. He is a good model for the role because he’s good in that role himself.
It’s symptomatic of our times that we have not only devalued the idea of heroism to the level of role models, but we have even attached inflated value to the roles themselves. We worship people who pretend to be other people in movies, though their personal lives are moral cesspools. We admire people who invest years of discipline into playing games that only entertain, yet scarcely recognize others who have made the world better for the entire human race. Everybody knows who Tiger Woods is. He bumps little balls into holes in the ground. How many people know who Jonas Salk was? He developed the vaccine that eliminated polio. Think about it.
Another way we devalue heroism is to apply the term too loosely. One of the good things that came out of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks of 911 was a renewed appreciation of military personnel and emergency service providers—policemen, firemen and medical first responders. Even still, police officers are less often portrayed as heroes than people in the other categories. Could it be because their very existence implies the punishment, and therefore the presumed presence, of evil in the world—in other words, that moral judgments can and must be made? But I digress.
I was going to point out that since 911, every firefighter, every EMT, every member of the military is referred to as a hero. Now, let’s be careful to give credit where credit is due. It’s true that any member of the military or emergency services runs the risk of having to place his life on the line for the sake of others. They should all be applauded for that. But let us not lose the distinction between the usual and the exceptional. There are some emergency personnel who have reason to expect that their service will normally be comparatively free of risk to their own safety. There are others who know perfectly well that they are taking their lives in their hands every time they go to work. Compare the life of a police dispatcher to that of the street cop for example. They both wear the same uniform, but dispatchers rarely get shot at. Every now and then one of those street cops chokes back his fears and does what must be done, knowing that there is every possibility that he’s about to end up with his portrait on the station wall. That is a hero. And it cheapens the term to imply that everybody in the uniform is just as much a hero as that guy.
Today, more than ever, a boy needs heroes to look up to. Of course his first hero normally is and should be his father. But ever more boys are growing up in fatherless homes without even a male “role model.” Even more common is the home that exemplifies our society’s addiction to shallow entertainments, mostly of the electronic variety, meaning sitcoms in which Dad, if he’s there, is an imbecile and movies in which even the good guy isn’t good. Movies don’t have heroes any more.
I’ve been a boy and I remember it. I had heroes.
I was never much turned on by the “superheroes,” though we had them even then. There was Superman, Batman, wise-cracking Spiderman—although he was only in the twelve-cent comic books, not yet a movie star. But even as a kid I could discern between the real and the contrived. I gravitated to books about George Washington, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Francis Marion, John Paul Jones, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. If my family had been Christian then, I hope I would have grown up reading about John Wesley, George Whitefield, William Booth, Hudson Taylor, David Brainerd, George Muller and Jonathan Edwards, too. These were men worthy of a young boy’s emulation. They were generals, presidents, preachers and explorers. They took great risks and made great sacrifices. They did things worth doing. Yet they were humble as they were brave.
Those men made me want to be a MAN. I wanted to grow up to be good and strong and wise and brave. I was, like most of my friends, waylaid by the cheap values of the world as a teenager, but my most formative years left me indelibly imprinted with the knowledge that there was something more and something better. There were achievements worth striving for. There was a purity of character that was a reward in itself. I sold a lot of potential for a mess of pottage when I was a teenager, but the heroes of my childhood had a grip on me still and though I compromised a lot I never escaped the shadow of Washington and Lee. I hope my sons never do, either.