Do heroes deserve the homage we pay them?
Feb 25 2013
Oscar Pistorius is the latest to join the Fallen Icons league. His story speaks of perseverance, strength, of fighting the odds and rising above adversities. To millions of people, he became an immediate hero. It was a similar story with Lance Armstrong, who having survived and fought cancer became a role model and an epitome of the victory of human spirit for his fans. His confession shattered the faith of all those who admired him. In 2009, Tiger Woods’ reputation lay in tatters after his marital infidelity with several women was revealed. Mike Tyson, OJ Simpson, Hansie Cronje, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones; the list just goes on.
Inspiring, incredible, electrifying and illustrious were just a few words once used to describe these athletes. But greed, jealousy, arrogance and many such vices led them into actions that took all that honour and glory away from them forever. Surely it’s time to be choosy upon whom we bestow adulation — preferably someone who possesses enduring quality beyond the sport and who doesn’t bend or break the rules of the game of life.
The world needs heroes; we all yearn for them. They motivate and inspire us; they help us reach beyond ourselves. They give us hope, they raise our spirits and in celebrating their success, we celebrate the triumph of human spirit and values. They become personal to us. We all have heroes in life that we associate ourselves with on an emotional level. The hearts of many Indians beat with the rhythm of Sachin Tendulkar’s performances in cricket; but sometimes the problem is that that we forget that they are humans, just like us. We put them on a pedestal and expect the extraordinary from them. We must remember that we admire them for their achievement in a particular field and must not expect miracles all around. In judging them, we must keep in mind that they are not superhuman, it is we who put them on a pedestal. So while we need to be careful, we also need to be circumspect when they fail at times; they are human after all. The pressure to live up to a certain image can be enormous and sometimes truly challenging.
Then there are many of us who find ourselves on the other side. Whether at the workplace or at home, you become a hero to others because of what you stand for, the way you work and the way you conduct yourself. You achieve professional and material success through years of hard work and people start idolising you. You realise that you have power over people and over how they think and behave. Success is a heady cocktail and you must handle it carefully. It feels great to be admired and respected, but when you reach that position, you owe a moral responsibility to the society at large. Particularly in the age of social media, your life is subject much more to public gaze, than it ever was. People will emulate you in everything that you do. In the words of Bob Dylan, “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” When you become an icon, you need to understand that a huge amount of responsibility is cast upon you to live up to the reputation that gets built around you and you need to conduct yourself with standards that are far higher than for normal people.
“A single lie destroys a whole reputation of integrity.”
— Baltasar Gracian
I think the crux lies in integrity. The problem occurs when reality and perception differ; and it can differ because people’s expectations of you may be unrealistic. When the world builds a story around you that is not entirely true, but the perception is so intoxicating that you want to hold on to it. You don’t want to break the myth. Lance Armstrong said in his confession, “The story was so perfect for so long and almost impossible to live up to...I wanted to be that guy everyone believed in, by any means available.”
Because the world needs heroes, it is natural for people to fabricate your story, the proliferating media needs stories and you may become their fodder. However, it is up to you to ensure that the story reflects the reality. Many people get caught in the trap of starting to believe in their own infallibility and greatness. When your own image ensnares and fascinates you, you become like Narcissus, the Greek god who fell in love with his own image and died pining for that love to be returned. The differences between right and wrong disappear and you will do anything to hold on to that image. The only insurance against this is to close the gap between perception and reality. Truth has strange ways of revealing itself and you have to take care not to propagate a fable that is untrue. If you have self-belief in your own reality, the world will accept you and admire you for what you are; and that is the greatest compliment anyone can give you.
“The characteristic of genuine heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits and starts of generosity. But when you have resolved to be great, abide by yourself, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be the common nor the common the heroic.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
(The writer is CEO of KPMG India)