Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Problem with Heroes

Like a lot of people, I am pretty much obsessed with the story of the rescued women of Cleveland. But I'm not quite ready to talk about the actual women yet, so (also like a lot of us) I'm focusing on Charles Ramsey, the hero who rescued them. 




Well, first of all, though "Ramsey-as-rescuer" is the going narrative, let's remind ourselves that Amanda Berry did a lot of her own rescuing. Because we're not really ready to talk about the women (are we being good citizens and waiting for reliable information before discussing? Or are we recoiling in horror, unable to process what they have been through?) we are directing a great deal of admiration toward Ramsey. The women freak us out: Ramsey makes us happy. And he deserves the applause. He could have walked away, he could have called 9-1-1 only; but he physically stepped up to the plate and helped someone escape. 

Here's the problem with the discussion. At least for me. As I was sharing the video of Ramsey and fist-pumping his existence with everyone else (not only is he a man-who-rescues-women — who doesn't love that? — but he's clever and funny as hell!), I felt this creeping sense of dread. 

Because whenever we collectively get behind someone like Ramsey, it means we're supposed to sanction every aspect of their life. And at some point we're going to learn that he did something bad — maybe he, oh I don't know, abused alcohol at some point; maybe he abandoned a child. Who knows what it will be. He's a human being, so he did something distasteful. When this finding surfaces, get ready to hear, "So what do you think of your hero now?" It will happen. And then we'll all feel like schmucks.

Is it even possible any more to have real-life heroes? Our classic heroes are so perfect — from Hercules to Jesus Christ to Ghandi, we know what a Hero™is supposed to look like. And the only way a real human can measure up to that is to remain mysterious: if we don't know much about someone, we can assign any qualities we like to him. We can do that with fictional characters (obviously) and people born sufficiently long ago that dirt digger-uppers can't get to them. But people born right now? Oh boy. If someone labels you a hero, get ready for the inevitable media shellacking. (See: Jason Russell of "Kony 2012" fame, who wilted so severely under the scrutiny that he ended up having a public meltdown and was hospitalized.) No wonder nobody wants to be labeled a hero.

The Hero in A Cowboy Hat

And really, nobody does want that label. Isn't that interesting? Not 24 hours after the Ramsey video went viral, he was pleading with everyone not to call him a hero. Another recent high-profile rescuer, Carlos Arredondo (pictured above) was as anxious to brush off the label. "A lot of people are very grateful for what I did," Arredondo said in an interview. "But I don't consider myself a hero. A lot of people can be considered heroes for what they did."

Some might view this as false self-deprecation, but I think it's an unwillingness to take on the heavy toll that accompanies the hero label. Nobody can afford to be a hero anymore.

Don't hold your breath, Bonnie

15 comments:

  1. Too, though, I think many people do a good thing, a thing they know they'd do again, a thing they never even momentarily questioned as the right thing to do, and so that doesn't feel heroic. Especially if we assume that the average person would have done the same.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Especially if we assume that the average person would have done the same." Good point! I hear this a lot in interviews with heroes-of-the-moment: "I just did what anybody would have done." I remember listening to a TAL on heroes, which had story after story of people doing crazily brave things to rescue others, and pretty much all of them said they didn't feel like heroes because they never made a decision. They didn't think about what they were doing, they acted on pure instinct, or adrenaline. The consensus seemed to be that you weren't *really* a hero unless you made a choice somehow. Interesting.

      Delete
  2. 'Because whenever we collectively get behind someone like Ramsey, it means we're supposed to sanction every aspect of their life.'

    This makes me think of The Fish Bowl. That's what they called being a part of the pastor's family. I dated the pastor's son for four years and I fell in love with him. It was a very weird dynamic. We were teenagers, then early twenties. Regular, red-blooded, even frail. But there was this unspoken sword of Damocles constantly hanging over our non-existent sex life. When we broke up, a girl in church came up to me in Bath and Body Works and said, 'Oh, man. I'm devastated that you guys didn't get married. You were my ideal.' I hardly knew her. I can't even remember her name.

    Also, only an inhuman fuckhead would say, 'So what do you think of your hero, now?'

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Also, only an inhuman fuckhead would say, 'So what do you think of your hero, now?'"

      I know, right? But after that Kony 2012 thing, that's exactly what happened. It completely took over social networking for a while, and there was infighting between friends on Facebook over who knew first that Jason Russell was not a Real Hero Man. The glee with which people utterly *destroyed* that man's reputation was kind of horrifying. I'm waiting for it to hit Ramsey. I hope it doesn't. (Arredondo seems, so far, to have escaped the limelight with his reputation intact.)

      Interesting story about the Fish Bowl. I'm sure you're right. It's probably like being on reality TV, with everyone just waiting with bated breath for you to be imperfect (or in that particular case, "sinful"); what better way for people to feel better about their own faulty selves?

      Delete
    2. I don't think the girl was being at all unkind. I think it just goes to show how much we project onto each other.

      Delete
    3. Oh, absolutely! I wasn't thinking so much of the girl's reaction as what life was like for your boyfriend (and you) inside that Fish Bowl. Presumably lots of judgment, with all eyes on you and the expectation of moral uprightness at all times.

      Delete
  3. Firstly, thank you for visiting my blog and commenting! It's so nice to meet you!

    Secondly, I think any kind of labeling- heor, villan, or otherwise is automatically going to be inaccurate because it's black and white- all good or all bad. Nothing in existence is all good or bad. Especially not people.

    So I would say that if you're smart enough to know that just because he's human doesn't mean he didn't do a heroic act than fist bumb away!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Suze pointed me in your direction as a fellow gardener! I loved your anecdote about weeding. And I completely agree with you about black-and-white. Forget that—shades of grey is where the real story is at. (Only not the Fifty Shades kind, errrgh.) I love ambiguity and messiness.

      Delete
  4. I think if you examine any individual's life, you'll find moments which could arguably be described as kind, cruel, loving, hateful, cowardly, brilliant, foolish... or heroic. No single episode can possibly define an entire life or entire character. Sometimes we behave admirably; sometimes not. Sometimes, we soar to the heights, and sometimes we wallow in the mud... and then rise again and hose ourselves off. (Like NC's newly-elected Senator.) Who we are... and who Mr. Ramsey is... is an amalgamation of all the pieces and moments of our lives, both good and bad. Mr. Ramsey did a wonderful thing, and I admire and respect him for that, but I think he's a wise and self-aware man to reject the "hero" label.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "No single episode can possibly define an entire life or entire character."

      Bingo, Susan. On the nose.

      Delete
  5. Excellent post. I'm fond of Emerson's definition: "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer."

    ReplyDelete
  6. I don't know who Jason Russell is, so at least that's one less person staring at the poor chap. I remember our Junior School headmaster surprising our class with a talk about good and evil. His premise was that no one is all of either- he got us to think of Hitler and how he had a nice side, which was totally shocking but it worked. We were about 8 years old and had hitherto seen life in more solid tones. It's easier that way but not real!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "It's easier that way but not real!"

      So true!

      Delete