What Do We Do When Our Heroes Fall from Grace?

“No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men.” – Thomas Carlyle, 19th century Scottish philosopher

The past few weeks have seen the cool-dead thump of the fall from grace of various heroes from multiple ilks and areas of society — from the Ashley Madison hack to the embarrassments of the primary season, with no let up in sight. Nothing makes the news quite like a marred poster-child.

Traditionally, heroes played the role of filling in gaps in our understanding of existence — by killing the wild beast, felling the huge tree, diverting the wrath of the gods, or even going around planting apples along the countryside. Heroes, in an idealized manner, helped us understand how we got from then to now, often with an important moral lesson to be taught in the recounting of the fable.

In the 21st century, especially in a world filled with individualized rights and objectives, it’s hard to believe that we still cling to heroes.

Even stranger, we are shocked when we place these heroes on the pedestal of public scrutiny — only to get knocked off and subjected to ridicule and shame.

From an academic perspective, the study of hero-worship among adults is a relatively understudied subject, with much of the knowledge coming from studying the so-called “big-man” theory — i.e. that great people do great things because of their greatness. But when we solely limit the study of heroes to “big men,” we neglect to analyze what purpose these heroes have in our lives — what meaning they have.

Researchers have found that we typically find heroes in four different aspects of our existence. Local heroes make up the largest group and are honored for their contribution to our immediate surroundings. Political heroes are revered for the idealism they portray in our broader societal contexts. Celebrities are seen as heroes because of their achievements, as well as the value our culture places on entertainment. Artists and scientists come in last place, respected last for their contributions to society.

Local heroes rarely make the national news from imploding, nor do artists and scientists — we tend to reserve this category of gallows humor only for the politicians and the celebrities.

But why?

In a paleolithic society, it’s pretty simple: if I don’t like you or what you say, I simply go bop you over the head (maybe kill you, maybe not) and take out my anger against you.

In a modern society, that’s not how we act, especially if we expect to not have a state of perpetual violence to live in.

And so the next best thing to killing the messenger becomes attacking the message itself — especially those individuals who have been enshrined as the demi-gods of the message itself.

All sides of the political and social spectrum have become equally good at felling the demi-gods from their perches — some by simply giving them enough rope to hang themselves with, others by doing research to prove that the hero is a bit further from perfect than he or she has been presented as.

So the real question in 2015 is how to skip a step. How do we have the moral lessons taught to us by the ancient use of fables, without placing ourselves (and our various cases) in jeopardy by having our heroes shredded in the public forum?

In short, we all need to become heroes on a local level — actually doing something for the good of our causes, surroundings, or nation.

This is hardly a new idea. Theodore Roosevelt III wrote about this in 1920 in his novel, Average Americans, closing with powerful words:

We had given but little thought to what we should do for the country. During the war every man in the service did something for his country. He now is in the position of a man who has bought a share of stock in a company. He is interested in seeing the country run right and is willing to give more service. The idea that we must endeavor to approach in the United States is to create a condition where as close to our entire population as possible has a vested interest in the country.

When our heroes constantly implode, like our current status quo, it’s a good time to re-evaluate how we transfer the knowledge of morals and societal norms. Further, we should seriously consider a new movement of civic engagement.

Photo Credit: Roland IJdema / Shutterstock.com