Why You Need Heroes (Even If You Aren’t Sure You Believe in Them)

There is a story of Ray Bradbury’s that lives just under my skin, ready to be brought out at any time to be marveled at, nodded in agreement with, and used as a reminder. It’s not fiction; it’s an anecdote from his childhood. It’s about having a hero and abandoning him.

From Zen in the Art of Writing: “Buck Rogers arrived on scene [when I was nine], and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips.”

Buck Rogers was the star of one of the first sci fi comic strips, an intrepid adventurer on the front line of fictional space exploration. It must have been a grand thing, being a kid in the days when space was “the final frontier,” and its exploration and the innovation that would get us there were still to come. It’s easy to see why Buck Rogers would’ve captured the hearts of kids like Ray. He was a hero.

The raison d’être of the hero

Heroes serve an important function in our lives: They represent the basic idea that human beings, by their nature, are capable. They show us that we as a species are efficacious — we are so good at living! (Not surviving. Living.) They show us, over and over again, that man can be successful at even the most far-flung, impossible-seeming, unbelievable feats of innovation, creativity, and exploration. They stand as an example of the nobility of man. We need this. We need it as much as we need food — it is food, for the mind and spirit. Seeing men with character triumph over obstacles to achieve great things affects us in two important ways:

  1. We experience hero worship.

This is one of the greatest feelings in existence, and there is nothing else like it. Remember when you were a kid? When the whole world was new, and you were filled to the brim with finding stuff out and exploring new places (like the woods and the park and your own backyard)? When everyone and everything around you seemed ripe with grand possibility? When you felt like you could do anything? You were full of wonder. You were full of the sense that life holds great promise, that there’s grandness out there, and that it’s within your reach. The stars were within your reach. They still are.

Heroes remind you of that, when you don’t feel like a kid anymore. They show you again that there’s grandness out there, and it’s within your reach. Without them, it’s all too easy to forget.

  1. We feel like we can do it, too.

Heroes provide concrete examples of people overcoming obstacles, including their own fear, and winning. They show us that success in our endeavors is possible, before we’ve achieved it, and that gives us more courage and motivation to lift our heads and keep trying.

If Buck Rogers can travel to the moon, surely I can write this blog post. If Beryl Markham can cross the Atlantic by herself in a rattling 1930s biplane, with the wind battering her the whole way, surely I can launch a website.

If Brian Wilson can keep his sunny, childlike disposition and honest wonder after growing up with a demanding father, withstanding the pressure to create hits for years, taking drugs, living his life very much in public, etc., surely I can have a positive outlook on taking new and scary career directions. Even if I’m not planning to fly to the moon or cross the Atlantic in a biplane or create genius-level music, a member of my species has, and that shows me what’s possible.

Heroes show us that it has been done and therefore can be done. They cross barriers, challenge boundaries, innovate, and stand up to criticism. They show us that we can say “full speed ahead; damn the torpedoes” and win.

The absence of heroes

With a need this deep and important, you’d think that heroes would be everywhere. But they’re not. Heroes are in danger in our culture. The tall, broad-shouldered, confident, capable hero who knows what he wants and goes for it — the ideal man — has disappeared from serious literature and nearly from art in general.

You can still find remnants of him in genre fiction, especially fantasy. You can find his spirit in young adult and middle grade novels. You might find some version of him in the preponderance of superhero movies and detective shows being made. But he will not be the same as he once was, for the ideal man is passé. He’s “too perfect.” Our culture scoffs at him. He must be dull; he has no flaws. At the very least, he isn’t like us, for we are all flawed, aren’t we?

Professors of creative writing urge their students to give their heroes flaws. For readers to connect with him, he must be more “human,” they say. Being heroic is not really human, they say. Being a screw-up is “human.” Being an alcoholic is “human.” Being condescending to everyone you meet is “human.”

If your hero is a genius doctor, then he ought to have the manners of a total asshat. If he’s a skilled innovator in technology and robotics, so skilled that he might single-handedly save the world, then he’d better be an irresponsible, drunk playboy (never mind that it’s nearly impossible for those two things to live side-by-side in the same man, in reality — according to them, this is what makes him more “real” — his flaws).

We don’t even call them “heroes” anymore — main characters of stories are “protagonists” in college creative writing classrooms. Given this attitude, the “protagonists” who have replaced the ideal man are men like Larry David. Unattractive, bumbling smart-alecks who live in an absurd universe, where even the smallest task becomes an insurmountable obstacle, unachievable with even the most Herculean patience.

In the Larry David universe, everything is chaos, and man can do nothing in the face of it. It’s an existentialist vision, with us as helpless playthings at the mercy of forces outside of our control. Since we cannot control our own lives and they are full of little awful absurdities, the only option we have is to mock ourselves. Man, in such a world, is small and ugly. You can’t even say “incompetent,” because in such a world there is no such thing. In such a world, man is impotent by his nature.

But is the world like that? What you believe about heroes relates directly back to what you believe about a) what the world is really like and b) what people are like and whether or not they are fundamentally capable of succeeding in the world or not. If the world is nothing but chaos, if we create reality by our wishes and whims, if we are fated and destined and have no control over our own lives, then yes, it’s true, we are helpless.

But if reality is what it is regardless of our wishes, if things are what they are and act in ways that are in accordance with what they are (meaning they are predictable, meaning, causality exists), if man is capable of understanding the world through reason, and if we are not determined or fated, but have free will and are in control of our own lives, then …

Well, then man is capable. It is possible for him to not only survive but thrive—to succeed. Then he is able to do things like invent penicillin; discover how to fly; create exalted, moving art; and even travel to the moon. In which case, he desperately needs heroes to show him what’s possible. He desperately needs to understand one thing that has been lost. Our childlike innocence and our hungry, tired adult souls need us to recapture it. It is: the view of man as a noble being.

A rebirth of heroes

Having heroes can be scary — that hero worship feeling means there’s something to live up to. It means saying you care, and that means being vulnerable. It takes a lot of courage to be a hero worshipper. Ray Bradbury did not abandon Buck Rogers for long. It took about a month before that integrity-having 9-year-old realized that the ideal that Buck Rogers represented meant more to him than the so-called friends who’d driven him to rip up his precious comics.

The rest of the story goes like this: “For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living.

The next thought was: those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.”  Bradbury knew, as a 9-year-old kid, that, for a happy life, he must hold onto Buck and abandon those who would laugh at him for having his hero. It takes a lot of strength to admit to having heroes, and there will always be those who poke fun. But denying the need for heroes weakens us. It makes us cold and brittle and hard.

It leaves us frustrated and struggling rather than open and ready to connect. It turns us into bone-weary, cynical adults rather than allowing us to hold onto our childhood wonder. It makes us less capable, not more. We begin to lose touch with our dreams. We need them, and it hurts us to deny it.

Who are your heroes?

If you don’t think you have them, think of people who risk things in ways you want to or in ways you know you will never be able to. Think of people who push you to stretch your boundaries in healthy ways and of people who have taught you so much. Look to art — that favorite TV show? Which character is the reason you watch it? And books, of course the books. My best, most cherished hero comes from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. How could you ever forget a man with as much sparkling life in him as Francisco d’Anconia?

Don’t deny your heroes. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge them. It will make you stronger. You will be less afraid to reach out and touch your own dreams. Enjoy your heroes, celebrate them, and let your enthusiasm for them show. Some of the greatest friendships of my life have come from reaching out and saying, hey, you know what? That thing you did was amazing, and it changed me. You’re my hero. Thank you.

If somebody wants to make fun of you for it, just pack up your heroes and go. You don’t need the fun-poker. You need your heroes.

Heroes will save your life.


This essay originally appeared at http://www.spunkymisfitgirl.com; reprinted by permission.