I spent the first part of my life choosing heroes.
It’s easy to find heroes. When you’re a little kid, they are everywhere: Anyone who helps you not be scared; anyone who is the best you know at stuff you can do; anyone who can do anything you can’t; but wish you could. People who do stuff that seems dangerous. People who do stuff that you would like to do, but it’s too difficult. People who do stuff you think is cool but aren’t allowed to do. People who play guitar. People who play in bands. People who smile a lot. People who aren’t afraid.
You might pick heroes based on one of these qualities. Some of your heroes might have more than one. As your list of heroic qualities grows, you’ll assume that the heroes you already have already possess all of them.
I spent the second part of my life losing heroes.
As you get older, you start winnowing down your heroes. You play them off against each other, and you play them off against other people’s heroes. Every time one of your heroes wins or loses one of these playoffs, you set the bar for being a hero a little bit higher.
So it’s not just people who play guitar, but people who play guitar really well. Then it’s only people who play guitar like no-one else. Then only people who play guitar like no-one else so well that other people measure themselves by how precisely they can copy it.
Not just people who play guitar in bands, but people who play in bands that are fun to watch. Then people who play in bands that are fun to watch even if you kinda hate half the band.
Then you make your heroes prove that they have all those qualities you used to assume they had. Heroes can’t just be people who can do cool stuff—they have to be GOOD people who can do stuff. And they have to actively do good things. And they can never have done bad things. Not REALLY bad things. Not only do they have no flaws—they have also overcome the flaws they inherited.
Eventually, you raise the hero standard high enough that none of your heroes can meet it. No-one could. Certainly, no-one else’s silly, insufficient heroes could.
But you still need your heroes. They define and defend your idea of what is right, and how things could be. Should be. So you choose a couple that you like so much that you are willing to drag them up to the standard. Get them in on technicalities. Make them the exception that proves the rule. Maybe overlook a flaw or two, or just write those off against the larger upside of your hero’s excellence. Maybe take on your hero’s flaws as your own, convince yourself that you share a common battle with your failings.
This might make it feel like you have more of a connection with this complete stranger you’ve chosen as a champion. For a while.
I’ll spend the rest of my life without heroes, surrounded by them.
Heroes don’t last. You change. They change. You learn more about life. You learn more about yourself. You learn more about your heroes. You can’t help it. At some point, you will have to confront their failure—their refusal—to meet the standard you set for them. You will realize that they actually were afraid the whole time. That they aren’t brilliant at everything. In fact, they are worse at some things than …even YOU. That if you met, you might not be friends.
And that thing they could do that no-one else could? Your hero couldn’t NOT do that.
They weren’t better than everyone else AND excellent at something. They were just as messed up as everyone else and excellent at something. Why did you believe they were a hero at all?
If you are lucky, your relationship with your hero will not survive this. If you are lucky, your hero will disappear, and all that will remain is a person —a stranger you find that you still admire, in whom you take an interest because they do things that you like, who owes you nothing but what they really were and what excellence they were able to share.
A person like that can never let you down the way a hero can.
Godspeed—no, make that Van Halen speed—to you, Eddie.