Pale Heroes

By Samir Shukla

“Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald

The other day I found a photo frame my son had made years earlier when he was in the Boy Scouts. It was stamped “my hero dad" on the sides. It got me to wonder about the meaning of the word hero. Have I lived up to those words stamped on that frame? Instead of coming up with a meaning, I thought about what constitutes a contemporary hero.

Every act of guidance, protection, discipline, mentoring, is open for critique with the passage of time. We may not be heroes in the valiant, stereotypical sense, but we give it our best shot. That in itself is heroic.

Our children aggregate all we gave, spoke, delivered or failed to deliver, and will eventually forge their own ideals and paths. The world is a wily and complex jungle filled with heroes and villains not very clearly defined. The years pass and we pat our now grown kids on the back and send them off to navigate that jungle.

Add the toxic political atmosphere that we live in into that jungle and the search for a stalwart, ethical hero gets even tougher. Where have they all gone?

In this age of incessant connectivity via social media and pervasive surveillance, people put on pedestals as heroes by others unhinge themselves via their sometimes minor or sometimes unforgivable misdeeds.

One day they are tall, strong, inspiring the world, the next they are mere mortals bringing shame on themselves by getting caught with their pants down, or their hands in a pot of illicit money, or succumbing to the seductive, soul-crushing charms of power.

A hero becomes just another pale human being when he misplaces or loses his own moral compass.

Shine a bright light and that tall, dark and strong hero suddenly seems pale. When you watch old B&W films, there were always the occasional closeups of beautiful stars and handsome heroes. They were shown in soft light, where all unseemly facial features and their shortcomings as humans were rendered unseen with the magic of light and movies. In today's high-definition world all the scars and warts are exposed on our big screen TVs and especially on the little screens we carry around all day long.

Even the celluloid heroes of old can't escape our voyeuristic, overexposing world.

Heroes become lesser the more we know about them.

Overexposure taints the sustainment of perceived heroes. Even the quotes of philosophical masters are undone in our unending exchanges in the muddles of social media. They are read for a brief moment and then swished away with the motion of the finger, on to the next incoming post. Do we really follow words of wisdom on a consistent basis?

Sometimes long-respected heroes disappoint when they turn out to be as ordinary as the path you walk on. Some of humanity's beloved heroes over the centuries were disheveled, lesser men and women when they were alive. Yet, their actions or even a single action or invention or inspiration turned them into heroes; people willing to cast aside their other foibles or misdeeds.

My heroes were always obtuse, imbued with steady yet disruptive genius. Sometimes it was Gandhi, often it was Captain Picard, and on the musical front if I chose one it would likely be Pete Townsend.

But these men are more inspirers than heroes. They were disruptive in a manner to affect change in art or politics. I tend to gravitate toward anything that unfurls the status quo into something better.

I have also always admired the myth of the American frontier cowboy, relying totally on himself to make a living or survive. But even that cowboy is a blend of multiple other cowboys, with my admiration overlooking their oft-destructive machismo.

There's the teacher in high school that pushed me to write better, inspiring me to engage in a life of words. The more I ponder; it was the act of a stern teacher guiding me that I remember most, not the person so much. I cannot say she was a hero, but I will always remember her for nimble edits that made learning the craft of writing a joy.

I suppose I don't know what a perfect hero is. There can be no such thing. We have to accept someone as a hero with all the caveats and boils that go with that person, for there is no perfect hero.

Competence alone is not heroic. Doing something positive that sets one back or is maybe personally damaging but is helpful to many others is heroic. We salute soldiers and call them heroes but it is only the soldiers who have faced death and brought death upon others that truly understand their perceived heroism. For them it may have been simply about survival, not heroism.

Sometimes you just have to take facets of different people and create your own hero, again via the actions they have taken that you admire while setting aside the ill-tempered, narcissistic, or amoral persons they may be.

Putting one's life in danger to save others is always honorable, but even that comes with a footnote. A while back I read of someone saving several kids in an accident, the temporary hero was later judged differently when people learned that he was a convicted felon.

We must accept that heroes today are as fleeting as the bursts of images in our daily, oversaturated electronic world. A simple act of kindness or lending a steady hand can become the hero of the day and not necessarily the person behind the act that betters someone's life just enough for them to pass on a similar act to another.

I don't know if I can be a hero to anyone, but I can always pass on a bit of wisdom or lend a helping hand. Maybe, in the end it is such simple acts that will sustain us, the pale heroes in us all.

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Samir Shukla is the editor of Saathee magazine. Contact - Samir@saathee.com