The Problem With Heroes

I had actually been giving some thought to writing on this subject before Joe Paterno passed away earlier today, but he certainly does provide the latest example of what I wanted to talk about. With the news of his passing, there seem to be two schools of thought. He’s either being remembered as the coach and leader of the young men who played for him, an untiring advocate for education, sportsmanship, and a generous donor to the school that made him famous, or he’s the guy who utterly failed to do anything to protect innocent children who were being molested in the very building where he did his work, by a man who he chose to believe in instead of those young boys.

The truth is, Joe Paterno was both of those things, and that’s the problem when we make him, or anyone else, out to be a hero. For all the good, there are always faults, and the more you make someone a role model to be admired, the more you have to look closely at them, and the more likely it is that you will see those faults.

Living in South Carolina, as I do now, you see this very clearly in the history of this place. The Civil War and the Reconstruction provide many examples of Southern leaders who did great things for their states, rebuilding after the devastation of war, sacrificing their personal gain to remain loyal to their home state, giving up family fortunes to serve in public institutions and aid their fellow man, yet these same folks were also, in many cases, supporters of the KKK, or turned a blind eye to some of the most aggressive intimidation the country has ever seen.

Were these folks great leaders, or unrepentant racists? Again, they were probably both. History has too many examples of this to count. The people we view as “heroes”, when closely examined, did a lot of things we would not want to be associated with.

Abuse survivors know this all too well. Society likes to imagine that we know evil when we see it. That there are “good guys” and “bad guys”, just like in the movies. The good guys always do the right thing, and the bad guys are always out to hurt everyone else. Real life simply doesn’t work that way. The person who volunteers at the hospital, or works with a youth sports league, can be the same person who goes home after having a few and beats their kids. The teacher being fired for molesting a young child can be the same woman who has spent her free time and dedicated herself to educating those same children.

On the other hand, many survivors so want to cling to that belief that their abusers were totally and completely evil, that they create heroes of people who have done good things for them. Suddenly authors, or famous figures who fight against abuse, become their heroes, the people the model their lives after, because those are the “good” people. Eventually though, those heroes prove to be unable to live up to these unrealistic expectations, and disappointment ensues.

The truth is, there isn’t another human alive who is perfectly evil, and there isn’t one who is perfectly good. There are a great many people who have done things that we can admire. We should attempt to emulate those behaviors, and we should allow them the grace to have faults as well. At the end of the day, Joe Paterno was a great coach, and a great teacher to a large number of people. He was also someone who did not live up to his responsibility to the children who looked up to him within the State College community. He, like all of us, was a great number of other things as well, some good, some not so much. His good deeds were admirable, his faults came with consequences, end of story. He wasn’t a hero, nor was he a monster.

No one else is a hero or a monster either. Spend enough time examining any life, and you’ll find plenty of both types of behaviors. Even our biggest heroes have bad days, and behave poorly. All that does is prove that no one really deserves to be a considered a hero. They should simply be respected for the good things they’ve done, or judged for the bad things they have done. We can all have our own opinions about which side anyone falls on that fence, but we shouldn’t be looking for someone else to be the total example of how we should behave. They will always fall short.