Heroes And Role Models: The People We Admire


By: James P. Krehbiel

I think that it is important to make a distinction between the heroic figures that we value and the role models that have impacted our lives. What are the characteristics that differentiate our heroes from those people who have acted as role models for us? How do heroes and role models affect our behavior and the way we relate to the world?

People tend to idealize their heroes and believe that they live in a world of perfection. Who can forget the candle light vigils that marked the death of John Lennon. Often people have an uncanny capacity to lose themselves in the process of honoring their beloved heroes. Some of us become an extension of the heroes that we embrace.

As adults, we may pass this phenomenon of hero adoration down to our children. Recently, a Congressional Committee heard testimony from a representation of our major league heroes. Some congressional committee members actually demonstrated their sense of awe and wonder, commending the players for their contribution to elevating the game to its finest tradition.

I recall introducing my son to an old time hall of fame star named Bob Feller. Bob was a flame-throwing pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Bob spent a half an hour talking with me and my son. He autographed anything we wanted, free of charge. There are not many Bob Feller's; so many heroes are doomed to disappoint us. Regardless, we have a fascination with their status and behavior. For many, it doesn't make a difference whether Michael Jackson is a suspected molester of children since he is still treasured by millions of fans throughout the world.

We are enthralled with our heroes. We care little about what Martin Luther King called the "content of one's character." Regardless of our hero's behavior and integrity, we often become enamored with their power and status and allow ourselves to become an extension of their values and beliefs. In our rush to embrace our heroes, we ignore their humanity. We don't want to see them as real people because it diminishes the significance of their importance to our lives. Many of us lack clear vision in our lives, and therefore out heroes serve the purpose of filling a void. We believe that our heroes are more important and deserving than we are. One prominent baseball pitcher told his young admirers, "I am not your hero kids; if you want a hero go home and talk with your parents."

Role models are significantly different from heroes. Role models are the people who come into our lives in a personal manner and enrich our experience. They give advice, teach, coach, encourage, support and protect those within their sphere of influence. They are the parents, friends, neighbors, and community members that we value. They represent "acts of grace."

When I was a pre-teen, I was fortunate to have a family who acted as a role model for me. Since I was friends with their son, these parents would invite me over every Saturday to play and to eat lunch with them. Then, during the summer they would take me on a weeklong vacation to their summer get-away near the shores of Lake Michigan. They were kind, considerate and supportive. When many of us are unable to create a sense of family within our own home, we need to look elsewhere to fill the void.

We all need mentors, and I was fortunate to have a family who saw my need and acted as a role model for me. Role models are intimately interested in our spiritual and psychological growth. When we feel vulnerable, role models assist us in building confidence and character. They elevate us rather than diminish us.

As adults, we may have role models who meet our needs in a way that encourages and support us in unique ways. A parent, friend, relative, or acquaintance may serve us by helping provide meaning and purpose for our lives. This is what experiencing a sense of community is all about.

Role models will rarely let us down, but heroes can and will. Role models always elevate us, whereas hero worship may lead us to diminish our value. Role models are intimately connected to our experience, whereas heroes may serve as vicarious images. We accept our role models and all of their humanity, whereas heroes may be placed on a pedestal. Role models usually fulfill our needs, whereas heroes may be a disappointment when they fall from grace. Role models are not an extension of who we are, whereas heroes may be tied to an illusion that we have about reality. You rarely hear about role models, but heroes receive a great deal of attention. It is time as a culture that we salute the role models and the purpose that they serve within our lives.

James P. Krehbiel is a licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at (480) 664-6665 or at krehbielcounseling.com.

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