Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Death of a Hero, Part 1

Some time ago, I was conversing with a friend, when they brought up a historical documentary they had seen about a biblical Jewish hero. Based on what they had seen in the documentary, they proceeded to assail this individual's character, leveling charges upon charges of sickening impropriety. Their criticism distressed me not for its factual basis, which lacked a holistic understanding of the subject matter and could be rectified with study, but for the anger and disdain I felt in their tone. Their temper was ignited by the betrayal they had felt, having long looked to the individual in question as a righteous human being. Watching that documentary, I am sure their heart fought for the honor of this person, searching desperately for exculpatory evidence, only to be crushed by the weight of the charges. I cut them off.

Our lives are defined by imperfection. We judge our cars by how often they break, our relationships by how often we quarrel, our performance by how often and how spectacularly we fail. Born to a world of wonder and potential, we quickly learn to disappoint ourselves, and to be disappointed, in turn, by others. We reflect the negativity we experience into abstraction, honing our appreciation for tragedy and misfortune until we are soothed by their comfortable familiarity. It is the way of the world, we tell ourselves and one another, relishing the hard won depth of our understanding, the sickly sweetness of bitter experience.

Into this cauldron of disaster, a world of pain we've learned to love, steps a hero, righteous and true - an abomination of existence. Pure, good and just, our hero is intolerable, for such characteristics represent that which we are not, and see ourselves as incapable of achieving, having given up long ago. We must first break the hero, to sully his purity, to question his goodness, to muddy the justness of his cause and actions. Only then, when all shred of human perfection is extinguished, do we find something magnificent and worthy of exaltation, with which to raise our hero on a pedestal. For it is no longer the hero who has achieved greatness - the character deconstruction we've engaged in have made sure of that - but it is we, through our own efforts, who have found greatness in him. It is we who are made great, the real heroes, for forgiving a hero's failings - they are only human, after all, we tell ourselves. The pretense of greatness is more appealing than true distinction, less threatening, for what we have given - the wink-wink ignorance of impurity and impropriety - we can always take away. The hero on whom we lavish praise is within our power to reduce to dust and dishonor, should they ever forget their place and challenge the comfort with which we approach our own misdeeds.

Character assassination, however, is not our only form of herocide. Flawed as they may be, we are still left to contend with the actions heroes leave behind. Instead of seeking to emulate heroes, to do as they did, today we've reversed this process. We seek to find portions of a hero's experience that emulate us, that resemble our actions, words and thoughts. We find meaning in the hero not in the way we connect to them, but in the way they connect to us. Our experience, our dreams and desires take priority, with the hero's purpose reduced to affirming our narrative of self. We find great comfort in a hero's perceived moral failing not for the lessons they teach, but for the precedent in justifying our own moral failure they set.

Our heroes are dead. We have murdered them.

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