The shortage of heroes

Let's face it, 2014 was a rotten year for heroes and hero worship. Sure, the ones it brought were plucky, admirable people who did praiseworthy things. But all too often their good deeds were upstaged by the misdeeds of individuals in many walks of life - entertainers, politicians, sports figures, even clergy - jostling one another in their rush to trip over their feet of clay and drag their reputations in the dust.

Of course this wasn't new. "Say it ain't so, Joe" was the famous lament of a young boy in the face of a baseball betting scandal a century ago. Yet 2014 did serve up more than its share of shabby episodes in which Joe - and sometimes Jill - had to admit, "Sorry, kid, it's really so."

This is serious business. People need heroes (and heroines) as models. Their absence gives rise to cynicism and despair. Remedies for the hero dearth need to be sought and applied forthwith.

And here and there one finds efforts to do that. For instance, patheos.com had a series on "Heroes of 2014." University of Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen announced that he's thinking of teaching a freshman seminar on heroes and invited people to suggest candidates. Many names were offered in response.

Some of them came as no surprise: Frodo the Hobbit, Gary Cooper's sheriff in "High Noon." (But how about Grace Kelly's gutsy pacifist in the same movie?) Troubling, though, was the fact that most of the nominees were from the worlds of literature and film, which suggests that real-life heroes are in short supply.

You'd think saints would be obvious candidates for hero status, but I don't recall seeing any saints' names on the list. I suppose that reflects the fact that so many holy people lived a long time ago and had lives very unlike our own. But the underlying cause, I suspect, is the suspicion of sanctity infecting just about everyone in these secularized times.

Pondering such matters, it occurred to me that the real problem may not be a hero shortage as such but failure to employ sound standards in identifying heroes. Good looks, sharp clothes, a knack for telling people what they want to hear - these are the endowments required to make someone a hero of popular culture today. And when an individual so endowed turns out to be hollow at the core, the disillusionment, though unquestionably real, is in fact unwarranted.

There's a simple lesson here. At a time when false values are the norm, those singled out for hero status may well disappoint in the end.

In these circumstances, and with occasional notable exceptions, the authentic heroes and heroines of our time are likely often to be more or less unknown and unrecognized. These men and women won't be talking heads on TV, headline performers at sellout concerts or charismatic candidates for office, but relatively obscure individuals known only to God and the handful of people around them who experience their goodness.

Speaking of the saints as models, St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, suggested something like that when he said, "They were people like us, of flesh and bone, with failings and weaknesses, who managed to conquer and master themselves for love of God. … You and I shall also learn to discover so many virtues in the people about us, who teach us by their hard work, their self-denial, their joy."

In other words, there are many to be found even today. You just need to know where to look for them.

Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015