Heroes, Role Models, Exemplars, Crushes, Idols, Paradigms, Archetypes, and Other Illusions

wonder womanMy heroes have always been writers. While other kids were moaning and groaning over sports stars or film actors, the latest gyrating band or skinny super model, I idolized those who created worlds in their minds. To open a book equated to prying open the door to a new existence.

This trait protected me in one way. Sure, I paid some attention to fashion, makeup, and culture pace-setters; but not nearly as much as most. I was the first woman I knew to abandon elaborate hair-does. To this day, I refuse to spend an inordinate amount of money on clothing or tickets to concerts. No one can impress me with a fancy car. These things just don’t matter to me.

I also was fortunate that my dream was achievable. With a minimum of skill and a whole lotta work, I had a chance of becoming a novelist. Too many are the number of young lives crushed in the deadly search for fame—or at least a living—in the performing arts. The lucky ones eventually switch to a more fulfilling career, like selling cars or running a restaurant. And those whose exemplars are in sports know their time is limited to their physical prime.

When I decided to give up a regular job, rather when I was fortunate enough to be able to do that, and did, indeed, begin to publish novels, I anticipated congratulations from everyone. Maybe ripples of attention through organizations to which I belong. Mention of my ventures whenever I was introduced.

Guess not everyone is as starstruck over writers as I am. Certainly good friends understand the long road I’ve traveled to reach publication. But the rest of the world seems as intent as ever on hero-worship of empty-headed reality stars and steroid-popping athletes. Even worse, copying their behavior and mouthing their standards.

I’ve learned “fame” doesn’t accompany achievement of my goal. Furthermore money hasn’t been an objective. That’s fortunate because I’ve made almost none. The actual return on the endeavor has been to substantiate a maxim I heard but never really understood. “It’s the journey, not the destination.” I’ve gained so much from writing, and I’ll consider this at another time.

At first I gave little thought to the person behind the works. I assumed if I adored someone’s writing, I’d like to know the individual. Brushes with some self-centered and idiotic authors soon relieved me of that delusion. There’s a big difference between a writer’s work and his life. Charles Dickens ran around on his wife and finally abandoned her. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Katherine Anne Porter had a miserable love life and miscarried several times. So achieving authorhood doesn’t mean you’re happy or fulfilled.

Does this mean heroes, mentors, idols are delusions? Not necessarily. Yours may be delusions or meaningless to me. Do we need them? I think we do. In addition to a few moments of escapism as we dream of a hero’s fantastic life, we can continue to adjust our views, hopes, goals, and dealings by what we know of people we admire. As long as we know anyone, including ourselves, Lance Armstrong, or Bill Cosby, can have feet of clay.

My family of heroes


What makes a hero?  My daughter’s one.  Yesterday, driving through downtown Denver, she spotted a woman bent over, clutching her chest.  Since my family is made up of heroes, she leaped out of her car, and went into action.  While she asked the stranger if she needed help, my daughter called 911 and stayed on the line and with the victim (by that time turning blue) until the medics arrived.

   The thing strange to her was that although hundreds of people passed on the crowded sidewalk, not one stopped to offer assistance.  Not a surprise to me.  Years ago I learned of a concept called “diffusion of responsibility” or “bystander effect.”  This social psychology theory was developed after the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, during which many in the crowded neighborhood heard her cries for help but didn’t take action. 

   The idea—the more people around an emergency, the less likely anyone will help.  “Let someone else do it.” 

   When I learned of this concept, I vowed never to fall victim to it.  And my entire family subscribes to the approach.  My husband, two children, two grandchildren, and myself have all stepped in to offer emergency assistance.  By my count, we’ve saved about eight lives as well as rescuing numerous others from lesser crises.  That’s why we’re a family of heroes.

   We don’t have superpowers.  We’re not outstanding athletes or geniuses.  We’re ordinary, not extraordinary.  But extraordinary things happen to us, and they can happen to you.  

   The first and most essential quality of a hero is simply for a person to be willing to step forward and take charge and responsibility.  Sure, other things are important: ability to stay calm, rational thinking, empathy.  But none of those matter unless you realize you have to act. 

   Check it out.  Next time you hear about a person who was heroic, see if he just acted, rather than waiting for someone else to be a leader.