Liar, Liar, Lance on Fire: A Hero in Hell--or, What the Hell's a Hero?

While the Bots and I were making the transition from Idaho to Arizona, cool to warm, play days to preschool, Lance Armstrong was making a transition from winner to loser--at least loser of his seven Tour de France victories after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a 200-page document implicating the cancer-survivor-cycling-hero as a key player in what the press is calling the most systematic and sophisticated doping system in the history of professional cycling. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that he will lose out on an estimated $200 million in speaking fees over the next ten years. He's not quite the hero he was thought to be.

It made me stop and think about heroes.

I found that, although I take my blog's name from them, I know little about heroes as a group, except that the fictional ones appear on a lot of underpants, and that my children love them. Loving them is the point, right? Aspiring to be like them--the perfect, moral, strong-of-heart, body, and mind-betighted beings--is what it's all about, right? But when heroes disappoint, time and again, it's time to dig deeper into our need for them, our expectations of them, and our expectations of ourselves.

So, what, exactly, IS a hero, these days, anyway?

In an article called The Seven Paradoxes of Heroism, Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals, psychology professors at the University of Richmond, list some interesting findings from studies they did that asked people about their ideas of heros. Here they are:

  1. The truest heroes are fictional heroes (fictional heroes exemplify heroic characteristics to a greater degree than real-life heroes who are prone, to, well, the weanesses of humanity.)
  2. We all agree what a hero is, but we disagree who heroes are.
  3. The most abundant heroes are also the most invisible. (policemen, teachers, mothers)
  4. The worst of human nature brings out the best of human nature. (Tragedies spawn acts of heroism.)
  5. We don't choose our heroes; they choose us. (We are cognitively "programmed" to find heroes in certain kinds of people, ie, athletes.)
  6. We love to build up our heroes and we also love to destroy them. (I think this one speaks for itself.)
  7. We love heroes the most when they're gone. (The  most successful president is, well, a dead one.)

This was all very interesting. But the article that pulled it all together for me was written by Scott LaBarge, a philospher and professor of philosophy at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, in California. In his article, On Heroism: Why Heroes Are Important.

LaBarge writes, "We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals -- things like courage, honor, and justice -- largely define us. Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy....And because the ideals to which we aspire do so much to determine the ways in which we behave, we all have a vested interest in each person having heroes, and in the choice of heroes each of us makes...."

He goes on to say that many kids today haven't even heard of the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Susan B. Anthony. And so their choices fall to baseball players, rap musicians, movie stars, and professional cyclists. Which is detrimental largely because when these heroes fall, it leads to "pervasive and corrosive cynicism and skepticism."

Is there a fix for such cynacism? Yes, and it turns out it's an important lesson in how to view--and treat--our heroes.

"The best antidote to this cynicism is realism about the limits of human nature," writes LaBarge. "...We need to separate out the things that make our heroes noteworthy, and forgive the shortcomings that blemish their heroic perfection."

I agree. I'm not arguing for forgetting Lance's vast deception. But I am a proponent of continuing to appreciate all the good things he's done.

LaBarge points out that while the "frailties of heroic people make them more like us...that they seem to reduce the heroes' stature," but, paradoxically, this might give us hope that we, in all our own weakness, might to accomplish "deeds of triumphant beauty."

The biggest problem I have with Armstrong's deception is that it perhaps robbed others of the opportunity to accomplish "deeds of triumphant beauty." But isn't simply finishing a 3,500-mile bike ride over twenty-something mountain passes in twenty-three days that has resulted over the last ninety-nine years in sixteen deaths ( in itself a deed of triumphant beauty?

We don't have to forgive Armstrong for cheating, or for deceiving us. But we can still admire his Live Strong campaign, his althleticism, her perseverence, and his work ethic. And we should admire our own ability to seek heroism in others and in ourselves.

My greatest concern is how to teach the Bots this stuff. LaBarge maintains that it's pretty easy. "Heroic lives have their appeal built in, all we need to do is make an effort to tell the stories....Tell your students what a difference people of courage and nobility and genius have made to the world. Just tell the stories!"

Katy Abel, in her article, From Spiderman to Mom: How Kids Choose Heroes, writes of a teacher who does tell the stories. Her students spend over a month each school year studying the Odyssey. They learn that "ancient heroes, unlike modern ones, were warriors who also cried and made mistakes."

But Abel contends that "if students are asked to write about a hero, but aren't expected to emulate the hero through good deeds of their own, then the effect is minimal...."

"Start by going home tonight and listing your five most important heroes," advises LaBarge. And so what will I do? Beyond my own parents, my in-laws, strong women in general, peacekeepers in general, scientists in general, brave artist/writers, and the best teachers I've had, and the be-tighted guys on the booties of the Bots, I find I come up short when it comes to knowing much about many heroic figures in history. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to the library. I'm going to the children's section. I'm going to check out biographies. The Bots and I will read them together. We'll learn about heroes. And we'll talk about how we can be heroes, too.

So I thank you, Lance, even while Nike is cursing you, for expanding my sense of possibility about how I might teach the Bots about heroes, and about how to be their own heroes.

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