There are three ways to remove the inspiration of heroes from our children’s imaginations:
1. Belittle military heroism
“The virtues that really open the heart and the moral imagination are those that you must exercise with real effort, here and now--standing up in front of this bully, perhaps taking a blow for what is right, and dealing one or two in return. Even friendship can be forged out of enmity when opponents of genuine courage meet one another.”Boys will be fascinated with violent action. A two-year-old will pick up any random stick and turn it into a gun, bang-banging away at anything in sight. He will build cannons out of Duplos and the pieces strewn on the floor become so many dead bodies. Killing bad guys is quickly a normal part of his vocabulary even if his innocent mother only remembers reading The Cat and the Hat and The Very Hungry Caterpillar to him. And this is only the beginning; his interest in war and fighting will only grow as he grows. The modern age would have us give our children as heroes not people who make peace but people who safely and comfortably talk about it a lot. Wars and those who fight them are bad. People die in war. Resources are destroyed. When history becomes nothing but “fashionable glances at wise people who did the politically correct thing and wicked people who did not,” then only the miseries that war brings are dwelt on. No one bothers to ask what would have happened if Britain had surrendured to Napoleon or Hitler. No one wonders what the world would be like if America, instead of fighting back, had come to terms with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Once the innocent mother has removed all of her boy’s real heroes, the modern age gives her an easy and frivolous outlet for his fascination with violent action: noisy, imbecilic, lewd and bloody video games.
As a young mother myself I can see how easy this would be. It’s hard to know what to do when your little boy is running around killing things. It would be easier to teach him pacifism. “Killing is bad, little boy. Would you like to play storekeeper? Play with your blocks; maybe you could become a builder some day. If you must fight, fight fires or disease or global warming. If something in society bothers you, just pass laws against it.” And then when he still wants to shoot stuff up, you sit him in front of a screen where at least the killing isn’t real.
The life of a soldier is prone to many a vice and much drudgery, but it is a profession worthy of honor because in entering it the man implicitly agrees that his life is not his own. War calls forth acts of courage and generosity and charity, often at the cost of limb or life. “Death or the risk of death can suddenly lift us out of the petty concerns of the day.” A child raised on modernity’s ideas of heroism will say, “I am heroic already because I agree with William Wilberforce,” rather than, “If only someday I could do something a tenth as noble as what William Wilberforce did.”
“Not many people can cut a really good new joke, but anybody can be trained to speak as if the good things of this world were ridiculous.”C. S. Lewis (in Screwtape Letters) says that flippancy is a thousand miles from joy and deadens instead of sharpening. It builds up armor against God. It’s easy to fall into flippancy because heroes often do what is foolish in the eyes of the world. They attempt the brave and noble--often seemingly pointless--despite difficulties, obstacles and dangers. Why admit that they are greater than we are, why risk our own safety or reputation to try to follow in their footsteps, why cheer, why flush with admiration when we can snigger and smirk and laugh at what we do not understand. Humility? Honesty? Chastity? Quaint. Out of fashion. Self-control? Temperance? Takes too much effort. People who value those things are unenlightened. Besides, none of it works anyway.
“Everyone is creative, everyone is original. Every one of the millions of lemmings is to believe himself a leader of tomorrow, leading tomorrow in perfectly predictable fashion right over the edge of the cliff.”Even a brief glance into history will find excellence to be admired and learned from, but that superiority is often an affront to our self-esteem. Excellence implies that some are better than others. In our day of “No Child Left Behind” we do not want one to excel beyond another. Someone’s feelings might get hurt, for goodness sake! So instead of admiring the artistic, intellectual and moral heroes of the past and learning from them, we homogenize and level them. Scott Joplin may not be as good as Mozart, but he was just as famous in his own day. Shakespeare was popular “back in the old days” but people couldn’t read and write back then. Nowadays we all see dramas; they just happen to be on television. "I think," says the person who doesn't really know what he's talking about, "that such and such is just as good as anything Shakespeare ever wrote." And any of us could come up with our own fine piece of work. The genuine heroes of the past are tarnished and mirrors of self-adulation are set up all around. Everyone goes to college--not to learn about the great ones of the past and for the opportunity to maybe be a great one in the future--but to be a College Graduate, as if that makes one somebody.
So why--if we wish to stretch their imaginations--should we introduce our children to heroes?
If you think back to the heroes of history who stand out for their artistic or intellectual accomplishments, you will find that most (if not all) had heroes of their own. And they didn’t just respect and learn from them as one would a knowledgeable mentor. They were their authorities, their teachers and they bowed with reverence before them. J.S. Bach, Edmund Spencer, Machiavelli...they all had their heroes and it was this admiration for genius past that enabled them to change history. The souls of our children will be exalted by the greatness they esteem in others.
A hero extends the limits of what is human and introduces us to possibilities we had never considered. If he does so in the service of something good and noble, we love him so much the better for it. Love of a hero does not make sense sometimes--like love, like playfulness, like anything that “makes life more than a calculation of profit and loss.” To common eyes the hero often looks like a fool: the missionary who returns to preach to his captors, the small band of soldiers who won’t surrender even though they are vastly outnumbered, the explorer who journeys to lands unknown and inaccessible, the statesman who stands against the slave trade even though it is the foundation of his nation’s economy. But it is this folly of a man making a stand despite all odds that makes a hero like a pack of dynamite to a young mind, ready to blow away conformity and dullness.