As a kid I had a lot of heroes: Superman, Batman, Mickey Mantle, and more. But as I grew older, they stopped serving as role models as I became aware of the more human qualities of each hero. Batman and Superman turned out be nothing more than ink, and Mickey Mantle became a full blown alcoholic. It didn’t matter much to me, I long ago stopped reading comic books and was never good at baseball anyway. But I had trouble finding heroes to replace them.
The media always jumps on the shortcomings of anyone who has the remotest chance of becoming one of our heroes. Dig up the dirt, editors tell their reporters, find the skeletons. Maybe none of us can accept that nobody’s perfect. But who ever said heroes are perfect? Every hero, in myth or in real life, has had faults – it’s what has always made them human and someone that we were able to identify with. From Hercules to Dr. Martin Luther King, this is the real lesson of heroes. They teach us that we don’t need to be perfect to demonstrate valor, stamina, and courage in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds.
My way out of the hero dilemma was to work toward becoming one myself. Instead of being continually disappointed by the world around me, and by people I didn’t know, I began putting all of my efforts into making myself a better person by helping others in any way that I could. I quit fantasizing about watching someone else’s movie and started trying to be the action hero of my own life. And I believe you can do it too.
We’re all on a separate pathway in life. We have guidebooks and mentors, but in the end we make our own decisions and have to find our own unique trail. It might not suit everyone, but if we’re successful, it will suit us.
When making decision, I often ask myself a question. If I were watching myself in a movie, what would the hero do? I think long and hard about it, then usually choose the more difficult route. Like giving up money for the sake of principle, or choosing paths that others say are too difficult, too stupid, or simply can’t be followed.
For each of us this is the real test, the real challenge. By nature, most of us want to take the safe and easy road through life – a road that is well paved, with bright lights and stepping stones to follow. Business school might train you to make tough decisions, but not heroic ones. And our society doesn’t exactly encourage any of us to break out of the pack and do something different. We’re constantly being pointed in the easiest, safest, and surest direction to get anything and everything we want. But these are shortcuts that lead nowhere worthwhile. Sooner or later the trail doubles back on itself, and many travelers get lost along the way.
If you are interested in reading more about the path of the hero, dig into Joseph Campbell’s work. He devoted his life to studying those myths that are common among cultures throughout the world, and the similarities all of our heroes have shared down through the ages. Campbell’s wonderful books help explain our reason for being alive. If you are unfamiliar with Campbell’s work, it’s best to begin with The Power of Myth, a PBS television feature narrated by Bill Moyers. You can ask your local book store to locate the audio and book versions for you, or call the PBS affiliate in your city or check you local library.
Campbell found that the legends of heroes are remarkably similar in almost every culture around the world. First the hero is forced out into the world to make his own way. He then enters a dangerous place – in Western lore, often an uncharted forest. There the hero must find his way out, cutting his own path through, and along the way encountering – and overcoming – many challenges and obstacles, monsters, and mysteries. These victories provide the hero with new wisdom and strength. And these are passed along to his people, once the hero returns.
In the Star Wars films, George Lucas relied on Campbell’s work to insure that this cross-cultural heroic dynamic was central to the plot of each movie. But the truth is, we don’t need blockbuster movies to show us the way. We can become heroes ourselves on a daily basis, getting better all the time.
What does it mean to be a superhero? We’re all fighting for the better good. But, at the same time, I think what stands out is, as superheroes, you don’t give up; you don’t surrender. I think that’s what makes a superhero. – Ellen Wong