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Column: Idols and heroes

Increasingly I am becoming troubled that far too many folks don’t know the difference between heroes and idols.

The dictionary defines a hero as a person of distinguished courage or ability, respected for brave deeds. An idol is any person or thing devotedly admired.

Heroism involves heroic conduct. A hero acts to benefit others, such as a citizen unselfishly risking her life to save another or a whistleblower speaking against fraud and risking his job. Or government employees risking their positions by refusing to carry out an order that is unlawful or unethical.

An idol is regarded with blind adoration; he doesn’t have to do anything for anybody but himself.

The distinction becomes further confused when we cavalierly mistake celebrities for heroes. The former act primarily for their own welfare and are often celebrated for their egocentric behavior.

A celebrity is a false hero. So is an idol.

Semantically these definitions are clear, yet why do we continually obfuscate the differences? Several reasons come to mind. We need heroes—and we have so few—that we elevate celebrities and idols to this lofty status without really understanding or caring that they don’t deserve the appellation.

Secondly, TV and movies project people bigger than life, and that’s what heroes are, aren’t they?

But perhaps most basic is our belief deep down that a true hero meets our own need to believe in a better world and conquer evil. Heroes do heroic things, just as we wish we could. We need heroes so desperately that we are willing to substitute celebrities and create idols to satisfy our own need to elevate ourselves to their level. “If he can do it, so can I. Maybe those qualities are in me.”

The problem in worshiping celebrities and idols is that their goals and priorities, and thus their actions, are rooted in less elevated purposes than those of heroes. Celebrities and idols who permit themselves to be seen as heroes—or who actively seek to attain hero status—cannot fool people forever into thinking they are heroic. Truth has a long history and a clear tendency to catch up with poseurs.

So, let’s be cautious about distinguishing among selfish celebrities, false idols, and real heroes.

We’ll save ourselves, and our youngsters, a lot of heartaches if we do.