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Why Even Adults Need Heroes

Superman and young athletes don't do it for us anymore

It was easy to have a hero when I was young.

Heroes could be anyone older, wiser and more accomplished, and when you’re a kid, that could be pretty much anyone.

Growing up in the 1960s, if you asked me to name those I most admired, I probably would have answered NFL quarterback Bart Starr or baseball great Mickey Mantle. If you asked me to name a hero who wasn’t a professional athlete, I probably would have come up with Charles Lindbergh.

Now, however, it’s harder for me to say who my heroes are.

A Different Perspective

I’ve heard too much about Mickey Mantle’s off-field drinking and skirt-chasing to consider him a role model today. Something similar happened once I read about Lindbergh’s views about racial superiority and staying out of World War II.

Now that I’m older and wiser, or perhaps more cynical and more attuned to feet of clay, whom can I admire today? To paraphrase Tina Turner, do I need another hero?

It’s more complicated, but still possible and valuable to find a hero, even as we get older, according to Scott Allison and George Goethals. They’re a couple of University of Richmond psychologists who have written extensively about heroism in books like Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them.

Allison said we seek out heroes because they have the potential to energize and inspire us. We also seek wisdom from our heroes, hoping they will reveal meaning, truth and purpose, according to Allison.

“They help us grow and improve and heal wounds. They give us hope and they elevate us emotionally,” Allison said.

Recognizing the Flaws

But hero worship becomes more nuanced and mature as we age, according to Allison and Goethals.

“Our views of heroes are more or less fluid,” Goethals said.

“As we get older, we realize all people are flawed,” said Allison. “As we get older, we recognize that even Gandhi had flaws and Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs and Mickey Mantle was a drunk and a womanizer.”

We seek wisdom from our heroes, hoping they will reveal meaning, truth and purpose.

— Scott Allison, psychologist

Goethals cites a couple of people he has admired: John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley.

“I know plenty about them that’s not heroic,” he said.

As we gain these perspectives, we may choose to give up some of our heroes of our youth. Or we may continue to admire someone, warts and all.

“As we get to know more about people, they may fall from grace,” Goethals said. “There certainly are times when I sort of left Elvis behind. But Elvis still did great things. You don’t feel you need to grow past that.”

“I’m hanging in there with Willie Mays the rest of my life,” he added.

‘Moral Compass’

Allison said that as we mature, we are less likely to choose our heroes for ability and competence and more likely for their moral compass. It’s moral strength, not physical strength, that we tend to admire as we get older.

Allison, for example, still looks up to the late baseball great Roberto Clemente not so much for his feats on the field but for Clemente’s work to help others less fortunate. Clemente died in 1972 in a plane crash while he was organizing relief supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.

As we get older and wiser, we still will look for someone even older and wiser to look up to.

Allison said it would be slightly ridiculous for a middle-aged man to see a 20-something athlete as a hero.

“It’s a little bit harder to put someone younger up on a pedestal,” Allison said.

“It’s almost as if heroes are parents. They show the way for you,” Goethals said.

Goethals, for example, admires Clint Eastwood, who is still making interesting movies at the age of 84. Allison looks up to a fellow 78-year-old psychologist who is retired but still using his skills in a meaningful way by giving lectures and leading workshops.

“He’s leading the most perfect retirement,” Allison said. “He’s just such a positive, upbeat, giving, generous person.”

Carnegie Award-Winners

But even the role of the action hero isn’t limited to the young. Consider the stories of Edward Jay Fillingham, Gerald LaMonica and Norman Hines.

Fillingham had Parkinson’s disease, but rescued three people from drowning in 2009 when he rowed a boat through choppy water to an overturned paddleboat in Henderson, N.Y.

LaMonica came to the rescue of a 10-year-old girl who was being mauled by a pit bull attack in 2010 who then started attacking LaMonica in Dearborn Heights, Mich.

In 1999, Hines pulled a woman stuck in a motorized cart on a railroad crossing out of the path of a freight train barreling at 60 miles per hour in Verndale, Minn.

All three received a Carnegie Hero Fund medal, a national award given to civilians who risk their lives to an “extraordinary degree” to save the life of another. And all three were in their 70s when they performed their rescues.


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