Do we still need heroes?

Credit: Deviant Art/Tom Qvaxy

Credit: Deviant Art/Tom Qvaxy

I’m sure that many of you have been exposed to the idea of heroes as role models, often at a young age. It seems almost like an obsession in our society, to the point that school curriculums ensure every single student has at least one person in their life whom they can definitively say is their “hero”.

Of course, when you’re a pre-teen boy or girl, unfortunately nothing is that simple. When I faced the sublime challenge of thinking about a figure after whom I could model my life, I was absolutely stumped. My immediate options of my father, mother, grandfather or my sisters fluttered through my head and seemed to be a natural choice, though everything from Jesus to SpongeBob was also in the pool of possible heroes.

The problematic aspect of choosing a role model is that it’s not simply someone whom you respect, but someone you can actually emulate. Therefore, it’s not that those on my shortlist were unworthy of my respect, it was simply a personal identity crisis.

If you think back to the 1940’s and 1950’s idealized image of a child, you might picture a young boy in his bedroom, the walls covered in posters of action heroes and protagonists from after-school Western action shows. It seems as if it were an innate feeling to wholeheartedly want to be like someone who is masculine, successful and engrossing, at least for males.

Ultimately, what concerns me most is how many (if not most children today) are deprived of such clear-cut heroes. The deterioration of the hero figure began before our generation, but with today’s children, it seems like it has reached a climax. If children don’t have these heroes, could it be damaging? Alternatively, could it be freeing?

Like so many other things today, I believe that children are unable and unwilling to find respectable hero figures as a result of technology and the media. Whereas previous generations have been all but limited to after-school specials or parent-approved CBS shows, the prevalence of the Internet ensures that a child will always have a choice of content to watch, oftentimes outside of their parents’ supervision.

Even for the millennials, social media downplays the importance of others. Social media is all about you. Your connections, your friends, your “feed”: it’s uniquely your social sphere. This is the century of the self, after all. It’s your name that is at the top of your News Feed and that’s what we’ve come to expect. It’s an incredibly self-indulgent experience and does not necessarily fit in with the humbling process of finding a mentor to whom you can look for guidance.

These social media sites advocate for the development of the individual, but at the expense of respecting others’ life experiences as equal and beneficial.

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, limits the influence of friends to a small feed that quickly pushes their posts down into oblivion. The thoughts and updates of your friends and relatives are down-played to dismissible sentiments that are more easily ignored than truly thought upon.

In order to have a hero or find any value in the mentorship process, you need to admit that these individuals, regardless of who they are, have something to teach you. So, what does a hero actually do? What value does having a role model bring into a mentee’s life? For one, heroes help to validate our constructed moral worldview.

When watching a classic Superman film today, it will doubtlessly be a little bit cheesy. To know that regardless of whatever actions the homogenous villain takes, their deeds will ultimately be undone and the ultimate peace will be restored just shortly after the heroic jingle plays seems almost like a cop-out. While simplistic, and as some would say ‘boring’, there is a clear villain and a clear hero. There is struggle but no complexity, and action without obscurity.

In video games, movies and television shows, in order to achieve a greater complexity of narrative, oftentimes the protagonist is the villain. Grand Theft Auto, Infamous, Star Wars the Force Unleashed, Max Payne, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Taken, Pirates of the Caribbean, American Psycho — these are all films that not only give positive attributes to generally bad people who do even worse things, but they often objectify and render heroism as ridiculous and ineffective.

According to The Huffington Post, a recent research study has shown that the literature a child reads can result in the development of honesty. In the study, children were asked to read simple, well-known stories. Whether they were The Boy who Cried Wolf, Pinocchio or The Story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, they all emphasized honesty. Whether this emphasis was through individuals being positively rewarded for their honesty or a character being punished for their dishonesty, there was a clear consequence to an action. Ultimately, when being positively reinforced, through a reward, the children would display improved inclinations to be honest in the test that followed.

With anti-heroism, the messages we are sending to children become confusing. If they are seeing evil protagonists being praised for their bad deeds, will they not then emulate the behaviour in order to receive similar attention and the desired positive reinforcement?

While I doubt that many children will be modelling their life after Dexter, the greater concern is that young people are inundated with mixed messages about the type of people they should become, or at least, strive to become.

Arguably, the second role of a hero is to show us something that we are missing. After researching the subject from a variety of journals and websites, it seems that the common assumption is that heroes are supposed to reveal something that is missing in our own lives.

I had trouble accepting this statement at first. I believe it reduces the mentorship process to a simple operation-style identification; when defining your identity, nothing is that simple.

Take a look at a classically heroic individual. For example, the namesake of our university, Sir Isaac Brock. With what commendable traits could you credit Brock? Bravery, willingness to serve or work-ethic? These are all good traits, and characteristic of identities that we could benefit from developing.

However, it’s not simply a copy and paste exercise in which students can just pick up a few rifles and travel over to Buffalo – it’s about a thoughtful implementation. One of the largest problems with heroes is that they’re often unrelatable. As encompassingly respectable and seemingly virtuous as General Brock was, we cannot truly understand his values, let alone suddenly practice them in our lives.

Furthermore, it is perhaps damaging to believe that, either as children or youth, we are simply cargo holds which can be filled with desired traits. Focusing on what we might be missing ignores the strengths and accomplishments of the individual. Instead of neglecting one’s own traits in the pursuit of another’s, it would likely be most helpful to thoughtfully develop those which already define you.

Having a hero is not necessary; having one role model does not ensure success. Instead, it is the mentorship process that helps individuals form positive character traits and become more effective people.

Russian behavioural theorist Lev Vygotsky’s main contribution to child development is his theory of scaffolding. How whether or not a child achieves his potential or zone of proximal development is directly dependant upon the presence of a knowledgeable professional mentor. One-on-one learning, which keeps the child as the main subject and the mentor as a cultivator of that child’s development, emphasizes the child’s agency in who he or she would like to become.

There are teachers, organizations and programs established in order to achieve exactly this role of mentorship between students and motivated, caring adults.

One such program is Big Brothers, Big Sisters Canada, whose fundamental belief is that having a role model is a life altering experience for children. The organization currently pairs 42,000 youth with mentors in different mentoring programs. Their focus is on programs to change the trajectories of students through one-on-one in school and extracurricular programming.

“Serving as role models, our mentors teach by example the importance of giving and giving back, of staying in school and of having respect for family, peers and community,” said Veronica Loveless, Manager of Programs and Services at Big Brothers, Big Sisters Canada (Niagara Falls branch). “Each time we pair a child with a mentor or introduce a group of students to an in-school program, we start something incredible – a life-changing relationship built on friendship, trust and empowerment. Proudly, it’s something our staff, volunteers and donors help bring about every day, and we’re very grateful for their generosity and support.”

Loveless states that, “Witnessing the transformation of a child into a confident, concerned and motivated young person is a remarkable thing. Ushering them into adulthood, seeing them grow into a successful, responsible member of their community and society at large is even more satisfying.”

Unfortunately, many other children who might benefit from the presence of strong role models in their lives are not involved in an organization like Big Brothers, Big Sisters. There are risks associated with these children, some of whom are neglected by their parents and others who would simply benefit from having greater one-on-one interaction with a caring adult figure.

“A child who does not have a role model is at risk,” said Loveless. “We believe that by changing the course of young lives we can in turn be changing the course of a community’s future. That it could lead to a reduction in poverty and unemployment. Or to safer schools and neighbourhoods. Or to a renewed optimism for growth. That it could even lead to change on a broader, more far-reaching scale.”

Even years later, while I don’t feel like I have found any single hero to base my life on, I wouldn’t say that I haven’t found positive influences around me. Rather than simply emulating one individual, is it not equally valid to be a “heroic scavenger” taking honourable characteristics from everywhere you can find in order to create a singular identity, defined by your own desires and creativity? To take Buddha’s self-reflexivity, McGiver’s pragmatism and Christopher Yendt’s fashion sense, not only creates an identity formed through the positive influence of role models, but also one fittingly crafted through my own personality and strengths. Is that not far more valuable than simple emulation?

As a student, you have an interesting opportunity. In this time in which you are consolidating your identity, you can reach out for mentors and take on the role of a learning mentee, or you can become a mentor and help younger individuals come to a sense of self. Visit bigbrothersbigsisters.ca to get involved.

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