As Memorial Day approaches, let’s take a moment to contemplate “fallen heroes” in our own lives—even if they’re still alive.
“Who is a spiritual hero in your life?”
A few weeks ago, this was the ice-breaker question at a small bible study I attended. As others in the group began volunteering answers, I remained stymied: who is big in my life?
People began coming to mind whom, for one reason or another, I admire. But in almost every case, the person also had some glaring deficiencies that made me hesitate to classify him or her as a “hero.”
- One person had the courage to overcome an abusive past. Yet he remains insecure and temperamental, making relationships with him difficult.
- Another exemplified love and humility in many ways. But she refuses to grow out of narrow-mindedness in other ways.
I’m old enough to recognize that all heroes have flaws. Yet, as minutes passed and I heard others in the room describe who their heroes are and why, I realized something: I expected too much of my heroes. In my mind, a hero was well-rounded in character, emotional maturity, wisdom, and so forth—as well as exceptional in one-two areas.
No wonder I was coming up empty. I was expecting imperfect perfection.
Stepping back from that unrealistic perspective, I reframed the question: whom do I admire for one reason or another?
What is a Hero?
To examine what a hero is, I turned to Merriam-Webster online. Here is their entry #1:
- A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
- An illustrious warrior
- A person admired for achievements and noble qualities
- One who shows great courage
Let’s examine these definitions two at a time.
1. A mythological or legendary figure of divine descent who can do something exceptional/An illustrious warrior
These two are similar.
In the old myths and legends of antiquities, the world was a harsher place. It had more physical dangers than most of us in Western society can appreciate. Can you imagine what it took to survive in the ancient world with these constant menaces?
- Disease and infections
- Scarcity of food
- Hard and often dangerous physical labor necessary for survival
- Wild animals
Legends and myths often extolled people with extraordinary strength, speed, or cunning that enabled them to subdue, survive, or overcome many of these dangers.
2. A person admired for achievements and noble qualities/one who shows great courage
Again, the last two definitions are similar.
We look at people who accomplish things that seem beyond our reach, and we applaud or even idolize them. Maybe they have a skill we don’t have. Or maybe we think we could do what they’ve done, but we don’t have the time. Or the resources. Or whatever.
But what do all these definitions have in common?
They describe someone who achieves something that:
- contributes to their own well-being and/or that of others and
- does so in a way that goes above and beyond the result of normal human effort.
Once I reached that conclusion, I realized that I would not have enough time during a quick ice-breaker to list all my heroes.
Three Reasons We Need “Fallen” Heroes
Heroes of antiquity went beyond imperfect or damaged to downright dysfunctional. The hero Hercules, for example, destroyed or captured many dangerous creatures. Many people could breathe easier because he made their region safer. Yet Hercules had a bad, even murderous, temper.
True, poor behavior deserves no excuse. Yet we can still recognize even such a flawed person such as Hercules for his excel-lent traits. In fact, it’s important to do so, even when heroes are real people.
Especially when heroes are real people.
1. Flawed Role Models Give Us Hope
Ever heard the term, “recovering perfectionist?”
Perfection is not a good goal for most things in life. We all know that. But excellence? Different story. We should all pursue excellence in our character, relationships, and work.
And that’s why we need heroes or role models with flaws.
If they can reach greatness, so can we.
If they can push through, so can we.
If they can give the world something to admire, so can we.
Again, this is not about excusing someone for wrongdoing. But we can recognize that exceptional courage and exceptional strength aren’t outside the scope of possibility for even our bumbling, inadequate selves.
2. Heroes Need Forgiveness as Well as Admiration
This is the other side of the coin. Forgiveness can be hard to cultivate. Having heroes who need forgiveness can make it a bit easier.
But first, why is forgiveness a big deal?
- We hear a lot about empathy these days. That’s good. But let’s not confuse understanding for excusing.
- We hear a lot about self-compassion these days. That’s even better. But let’s not confuse kindness for indulgence.
- In both scenarios, forgiveness is the key.
What is forgiveness? Forgiving someone does not mean trusting an untrustworthy person. It’s not about bad behavior not carrying consequences. But it is about not holding a person’s wrongdoing against her—as a person.
When someone hurts us or we mess up, we get angry. Unfortunately, the anger tends to further than the bad behavior. We label the person, whether another or ourselves, as bad.
But flip the script: when we admire someone, we are more likely to forgive his or her “mistakes.” We see them as “flaws” in a person who is otherwise heroic.
Now bring it in close. What about your flawed family member? Boss? Friend? Self?
Learning to forgive people we admire can help us learn to forgive others closer to us. Even ourselves.
3. No Champions if not Imperfect Ones
Remember point number 1, that we need hope? Let’s check that out from a different point of view.
We know no one is perfect. But even if we adjust our definition of “hero” to include people with only minor flaws, we still won’t have many to choose from.
And we need heroes.
We need people to prove that breakthrough is possible.
We need people to show us that our past doesn’t have to define our future.
We need people to model courage in a way we can understand.
And if we search only for examples who don’t have any major issues? We may come up empty. And we can’t afford to do that.
As I found out with a little soul-searching, to have heroes means to accept people with major flaws.
This Memorial Day, let’s remember the soldiers who have died for our country. They are the fallen heroes.
And as we recall their sacrifice, let’s also contemplate the other heroes in our lives.
From there, let’s expand the definition of hero. Let’s include even the “fallen” people around us. Let’s admire people whose
- integrity, and
set them apart. Even if they never grow in other areas of their lives, they can still be heroes.
They can still shine as lights that we can follow.
Because admiring and following them holds out hope for us, teaching us compassion for those around us—and for ourselves.
Do you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you define “hero?” Do you have any “fallen heroes?”