With the passing of the years we see also the passing of our heroes: the giants among us who stand out against the backdrop of history and who stood for and symbolized ideals which most of us only think or talk about in the abstract. People like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi. People like Nelson Mandela.
It is an interesting trait of the human experience that we idolize and deify by nature, and heroes are the manifestation of that propensity. Those women and men who have dedicated their lives to a higher cause, and who’ve often died in the service of that cause, are the most revered among us.
But the age of the type of heroes we have seen and created in the past, the faultless hero, the perfectly self-effacing, unhindered, and noble hero, is coming to a close. But in fact, that hero never truly existed. The perfect hero is a story that we tell ourselves to create an ideal to strive for; and those heroes of our making stand atop history as shining examples, never to be reached.
Yes, there are men and women with a seemingly inhuman sense of conviction who have helped shape the world with their actions, but none have done it alone and never has any hero utterly transcended their peers except by the acknowledgments of history. But I think this makes their acts more powerful, not less. A flawed human taking a stand for a better world in any context is a triumph, whatever the scale.
Today, however, the endless scrutiny and attention to the minuscule, made possible largely by technology and a still growing culture of celebrity, is ushering in a new age. The ever present transparency that is growing into our society lifts the veil from the burgeoning hero and makes them only human. As the history of lives becomes a matter of public record, the mythology built around those who would be future heroes is stillborn.
This is not to say that progress and change will not happen. This is not to say that the merit of the actions of those figures in the past are reduced in any way. This is not to say that true heroism does not exist, nor that true acts of heroism are now impossible. I mean only to say that the fog of perfection which surrounds heroes, and has been necessary for their attainment of that title, is eternally lifted in this new era.
But this is merely an evolution in our approach to heroism. The next stage is the birth of a new kind of hero. Gone are the days of the mythological being taking the shivering hand of humanity and guiding us into the future. Our new heroes will be flawed; they will be ugly; they will do shameful things and act in unseemly ways; they will let us down… They will be simply us. But if they can weather the storm we will create around them, they can be a part of the change that lifts us out of our squalor.
There are still innumerable historical battles yet to be fought and won: for equality between men and women, races and nationalities, for economic justice and human rights, for the liberation from religious persecution, animosity, and violence. But from now on, those battles will be fought by us. Because, though we lie on various ends of any spectrum you can imagine, it is no longer possible for any of us to be forever pure in the way that heroes once were. It is no longer possible to be larger than life or to be more ‘ideal’ than person.
But then, heroes have never been a phenomenon of their own generations. Nelson Mandela lived to see that pedestal placed below him out of sheer longevity and the unlikeliness of his tale. But too often it is only after heroes die, or long after their age of prominence, that they can earn that hallowed title. So perhaps all the blemishes on the heroes of today -whoever they are- will be washed out when tomorrow dawns; perhaps we’ll finally see the forest rather than the trees.
We, all of us, stand on the backs of the known heroes and a multitude of their unsung kin. And, for all of their flaws and cursed humanity, it is their grace that I choose to honor and remember.