Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Trouble with Hero Worship, or, How Mel Gibson Ruined my Childlike Naïveté

One characteristic that has reared its odd little head more and more in my life is a distinct mistrust of "popular" people or ideas. I like to think this isn't some sort of personal hipster-like revolution (though it's hard to justify that, as I'm sitting here typing this with black rimmed glasses, an ironic pop culture t shirt, and, you know, a blog), but rather a symbol of my strong will and principles. Yeah. That's it.

This subject actually came up when my girlfriend and I passed a billboard advertising "The Making of Jimmer" dvd. That sparked a good conversation between us on whether or not hero worship was a good thing. The result of our conversation was basically that it's a tricky business hero-worshiping someone--you never know enough about him or her to truly pass judgment on her or his overall moral character. For me personally, I think, in some way, this notion stems from a personal experience from my youth when I admired a person greatly, only to be later disappointed in them. Yes, that's right, I, like most children my age, was an avid Mel Gibson fan.

I...wasn't alone in this, right?

At the time, I thought he was cool as ice. Here he was, one of the big names in Hollywood, and at the time he was well known for being: a. A faithful and devout Catholic, b. A former alcoholic-turned-teetotaler, c. A loyal husband who had seemingly overcome the Hollywood marriage curse. Not only that, but he made Braveheart.


Pictured: Braveheart.

Great guy, right?!

Too bad that personal image didn't really remain true.

I like to think that that was a pivotal moment in my life, watching my personal hero devolve into an angry, adulterous, alcoholic, anti-semitic, aggressively misogynistic crackpot. I learned a valuable lesson: not even Braveheart is above basic human fallibility.

Now, I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but...well, actually, yeah, I probably do. I don't believe in hero worship (with the exception of, you know, Jesus). It bothers me when someone tries to model their life on Michael Jordan. People like to have idols; we like to believe that there are other people who, through their gumption and perseverance, overcame their (to use an LDS term) fallen natures and became more than just a person. We like our heroes to be bigger than life, so big that no person could possibly live up to that.

I suppose this is where the notion of heroes being an idea rather than a person comes up. This is, of course, the power of martyrs. If a person dies nobly for a cause, then no one really cares if that person was behind on an alimony payment, or she or he didn't like [insert racial/religious/other minority group]. The person his or herself isn't what's important; it's the idea behind that person, the behavior she or he exhibited--even just that one time--that transcended his or her humanity and proceeded onto a higher plane.

That, of course, leads one directly to disappointment should one ever discover the martyr's "dirty little secrets."

Now, I'll beat everyone to the chase and let you all know that I am, still, a hypocrite to my own rant. I still hero worship, and I still look the other way whenever I hear something contrary to the imagined attributes I created for this person. I like to think that my current heroes are more heroic than, say, Mel Gibson, but I'm sure that, ten years from now, I'm just as likely to think about them what I now think about Mel.

Sometimes, it's not so important (for example, my worldview wasn't shaken when it turned out Mel Gibson is pretty much a jerk). Sometimes, though, it becomes very important, like when a close personal friend questions the church after discovering certain questionable attributes of Joseph Smith. How do you handle something like that?

For me, this whole issue raises certain questions, and I suppose that's the real reason I wrote this post. I invite anyone who reads this to answer any or all of my questions. For convenience sake, I'll even number them.

1. Does the good of a mostly imaginary hero outweigh the bad of ignoring that person's very real flaws and replacing them with fiction?
2. What happens if someone you hero-worship goes all "Mel Gibson" on you and turns into someone you don't look up to anymore?
3. Does setting someone up as a overly-fictionalized hero character marginalize his or her actual accomplishments? Or, put another way, do you believe that a person is more "heroic" if you take into account her or his flaws rather than if you abandon them and assume he or she is perfect?
4. Perhaps most pressingly, what should a person do if her or his faith in the Church is shaken after hearing about some of the less-than-appropriate-for-Sunday-School attributes of important Church figures?

I invite your answers.