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Our Illusions of Role Models, Heroes, and Idols

Idols who inspire and reassure us are ordinary people, both worthy and flawed.

You remember "role models," don't you?

You know, those people we looked up to when we were younger, whom we aspired to be like, and possibly now, whom we want our children to emulate?

Some might think that people would agree on who could be role models for us "ordinary people," that we’d have similar ideas about whose achievements or personalities would make us "ooh and aah.” It turns out, it isn’t that simple.

As young children, our first role models are usually our parents, and it takes years for us to see them as people with frailties, despite their impressive qualities. Adolescents and young adults form relationships with admired mentors at school or work. They often idealize their mentor, until the realization sets in that despite some exceptional talents, this role model is an “ordinary” person, with attendant faults. Accepting our parents and mentors—and ourselves—as worthy but flawed can at times be challenging.

Children and adolescents are also drawn to other kinds of role heroes or idols: They might revere athletes in professional sports, or religiously pursue the lives of movie stars, action figures, television, or pop music personalities on social media.

Extreme fandom can inspire them to post pictures on websites or paste posters on their bedroom walls or school lockers. Sometimes the adulation borders on intense worship or even fantasied romantic love.

Some adults continue to admire stars in sports, music, and the media, casting them as heroic figures or idols. But many are more drawn to achievers in other fields: World leaders, scientists, writers, artists, religious leaders, inventors, composers, philanthropists, musicians, physicians, teachers, or judges are likely to be deeply admired.

Other adults are more impressed with laudable personality characteristics for their (or their kids’) role models. They might place people on a pedestal whom they see as decent, respectful, compassionate, empathic, generous, tolerant, humble, responsible, and trustworthy.

Still others might seek role models who are successful or strong leaders, or even who are opinionated, selfish, egotistical, and narcissistic.

Thus, the choice of a role model is entirely "in the eye of the beholder," and highly personal: Your chosen idol might be someone I dislike, and my role model might be your scoundrel.

In extreme forms of hero-worship, we see deep attachments to a charismatic individual who might represent an intense belief system (“ism”). In research I did years ago I looked at many ‘true believers,’ zealous followers of leaders of various religious movements and cults.

In the minds of the impressionable young adults, the leaders were close to “perfect,” even attributing to them “superhuman” abilities and wisdom. (Caveat: The vast majority became disenchanted in under two years, and saw the leaders for what they were in reality: “ordinary people.”)

Whether our role models are creative people who contribute to human progress and quality of life, or others who provide us with entertainment and stimulation, to put any outstanding individuals on pedestals of perfection is fraught with the specter of disillusionment.

There are no “perfect people.” Our role models may have impressive characteristics and talents which can sweep us away (at least for a while), but we inevitably learn they have weaknesses and faults.

To read biographies, to know anyone well, or just to live(!), is to learn that people are complicated, just like life itself. At times it feels like a smooth path of pleasure and accomplishment, and at others it’s more like a rough trail of sadness and conflict.

Each of us is a metaphor for our species: At our best, we humans are benevolent and inspiring, but we can also be benighted and destructive.

So it is with our role models, heroes, and idols. We seem to need these figureheads to give us some stability during challenging or frenetic times. When people have role models to look up to, they feel comforted, at least for a while. But all-encompassing worship of any one person inevitably leads to disappointment.

We can admire and even emulate aspects of accomplished or outstanding people, but hero-worship and attributing to them unrealistic personal traits or powers is a fool’s errand, destined to disappoint.

The subtitle of my last book (Our Emotional Footprint), is “Ordinary People and Their Extraordinary Lives,” which is about all of us. Each of us “ordinary people” has in all likelihood already been a role model for others.

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