Living Without Heroes

“I think continually of those who were truly great–
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.”

-Stephen Spender

I don’t have heroes any more. Not really. When I was growing up there were certain sports stars I revered and as a six year old I looked on in wonder as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gamboled about on the pitted, ancient surface of the moon.

Now I’m a man in my mid-forties and my views on the subject of heroes have been jaundiced by decades of lies and evasions from leaders of all political persuasions. Athletes these days are remote, rich and juiced on any performance enhancing drug they can get their hands on. And it turns out that Neil Armstrong is a rather cold, undemonstrative man and Buzz Aldrin spent the entire Apollo mission sulking because he wasn’t going to be the first one out the hatch once they set down in the Sea of Tranquility.

Heroes nowadays are at a disadvantage—Caesar and Alexander and Boadicea never had to put up with celebrity biographers (just malicious gossip), the Andrew Mortons and Kitty Kelleys of the world peeping in keyholes and tracking down anyone with a bit of tittle to tattle. It’s hard to rally the citizenry and inspire high minded ideals while trying to cover up or defend some transgression or moral lapse. The optics are really awful.

When I’m looking for a bit of inspiration, a true tale to remind me of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, I look to the past, often the very distant past. Seeking those individuals who seized control of their own fates, who were determined, regardless of the cost “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson). These men and women didn’t employ spin doctors or commission polls before determining policies and tactics.

We don’t find leaders of the quality of Leonidas, Xenophon or Marcus Aurelius in the halls of power these days. No figures of unimpeachable authority and strength to admire and emulate.

Take a look at the head of state of your country. Would you follow that person to the ends of the earth, serve them without question, suffer extreme deprivation, enter the very depths of Hell itself at their behest?

I rest my case.

Do the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq feel heroic, like latter-day versions of Achilles and Agamemnon, laying siege to the fortresses of terrorism? Or are they just guys and gals who have a job to do, a family to support, hoping and praying each and every night before they bed down that they’ll survive their tours of duty?

We’ve become a smaller people, soft and pliant; hedonistic narcissists, indifferent to the world around us. We don’t dare dream and rarely does our gaze stray to the horizon line (for the most part we keep our heads down and try not to meet anyone’s eyes).

Historical narratives presented by the likes of Stephen Pressfield, Conn Iggulden, Robert Graves and Michael Curtis Ford evoke past ages with thrilling vigor and elan. These authors devote incredible time and energy researching the great and near great, presenting us with gorgeous, vibrant, utterly convincing portrayals that are documentary-like in their realism, provoking a constant sense of you are there. In the process, we are reminded of what frail and timid things we are in comparison, how addicted to creature comforts, how far removed from suffering and strife. We were a much sturdier, hardier breed in days of yore.

In America, it was the pioneers who came closest to the kind of heroic courage that is the making of myths and legends. Unfortunately, they soon gave way to the lawyers and bankers, mercantilism replacing true grit. From Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, Lewis & Clark and Davey Crockett to being a “nation of shopkeepers”.

I grieve for what has been lost—the price of “progress”, which seems to instill a desire for stability, comfort…and mediocrity. I crave heroes, the visions and dreams they inspire. We’re poorer as a species without such men and women. They show us what might be possible if we exert ourselves for a higher purpose and deny or withhold from us the bright attractions of commonplace things.

6 comments

  1. caveblogem

    All too true, Cliff. Sometimes I think that this is the most important reason to study history. I’m sure that there are lots of heroes out there now. Best for everyone concerned that they remain anonymous until after they can no longer be destroyed by media attention.

  2. iansales

    I recently finished a biography of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. According to the book, there wasn’t all that much that was heroic about him – unless you count his inhuman drive to be “first”.

    One man I’ve always considered more heroic than most is Wilfred Owen. Even though, like Sassoon, he disagreed with the Great War, he returned to the Front after being cured of shell-shock. And was killed a week before the end of the war.

  3. qugrainne

    To find heroes, you need travel no further than the far-east. First and foremost is Mahatma Gandhi, political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi said:

    “The science of war leads one to dictatorship, pure and simple. The science of non-violence alone can lead one to pure democracy…Power based on love is thousand times more effective and permanent than power derived from fear of punishment….It is a blasphemy to say non-violence can be practiced only by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals…The nearest approach to purest anarchy would be a democracy based on non-violence…A society organized and run on the basis of complete non-violence would be the purest anarchy.”

    Next on my list might be Mother Teresa. She founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India in 1950, and for over forty years she ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying, while guiding the Missionaries of Charity’s expansion, first throughout India and then in other countries. She deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work

    Third hero is Tenzin Gyatsois, the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama of Tibet (and currently of Olympic fame). He has helped to spread Buddhism and to promote the concepts of universal responsibility, secular ethics, and religious harmony.

    He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The committee recognized his efforts in “the struggle of the liberation of Tibet and the efforts for a peaceful resolution instead of using violence.”

    What kind of hero do we need more than anything else now, but a person who promotes peace above all other things? These are three people who gave, disregarding their personal needs. Too bad there aren’t many more like them. Are you listening, George W?

  4. Mike Robinson

    I agree with the reasoning on this one, for the most part.

    As a guitar player, I looked up to certain players when I was growing up. They’re heroes, but certainly not of this sort. Your observations, in my opinion, are all too true.

  5. ordinaryswoon

    You wonder if modern-day soldiers feel like Achilles; but I’ll bet you ten dollars that even Achilles didn’t feel like Achilles.

    “Over the heather the wet wind blows,
    I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
    The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
    I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.”

    – W.H. Auden, “Roman Wall Blues”.

    Humans create heroes of people who were never perfectly heroic. It’s natural and correct, and to be sorry that nobody’s as wonderful as we pretend they are is like throwing down a Shakespeare sonnet yelling “NO ONE IS THAT BEAUTIFUL! YOU LIE, WILLIAM! YOU LIE!”

  6. Maggie, dammit

    Wow. Your writing is breathtaking, and the topic fascinating. Thanks for finding me, I’m so glad I found you back.

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