Who Are Your Real-Life Heroes?

We are constantly bombarded with different messages of how to “be a man.” The phrase “Real Men do _____” is often used to shame men who don’t conform to this ideal. The fact is that we are making this up as we go along, looking to those who came before.

There are no shortage of fictional role models, whether it’s Don Draper (for the smoking and drinking to be sure, but also the existentialist cool) or the male Avengers (who may not be the most functional guys to emulate). But real-life heroes are a far more personal thing.

If we’re lucky, we have male role models in our life from an early age. I learned a lot from my father, mostly about to judge a good story (odd, since he’s a mathematician). But this is about other role models,men I’ve never met who nonetheless make me want to be a better men.

Listing your heroes can make one a little self-conscious. I could name larger-than-life figures like Jesus, The Buddha and Abraham Lincoln, but these mean so many different things to different people as to lose any meaning. It’s like calling The Beatles your favorite band.

Starting in chronological order I would say Oscar Wilde (1854-1900 influenced me greatly. Growing up all I knew about Wilde was that he was a) gay and b) funny as hell. The latter made him interesting, but the former (in the still fairly homophobic 80s) made him dangerous. Now, I think Wilde should be reclaimed as bisexual (I see nothing to convince me that he did not love his wife Constance) and find his writing essential. But Wilde’s greatest contribution to the culture has to be his aphorisms, many of which are as paradoxical as Zen koans (“Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow,” “One can resist everything but temptation.”) Wilde has shown me that something as frivolous as humor can be a powerful tool.

Nowadays, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is best known for the overly sentimental “What A Wonderful World,” but it would not be an exaggeration to say that he helped create not just jazz but modern pop music as we know it. Armstrong helped create the language of improvisation that informs most modern music, as well as popularizing the form. He can even be credited with one of the first “crossover” hits: 56 years before Run-DMC met Aerosmith, Armstrong recorded “Blue Yodel #9” with “Father Of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers. Armstrong was accused in his time of being an “Uncle Tom,” but he also criticized President Eisenhower for not doing more for desegregation. I’m not a musician, but if I was I wish I had even 1% of the talent and insight that Armstrong had.

Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926) is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and poet. He is best known in North America for his books combining Zen with psychology for a mass audience. But he has done much more – opposing the war in his native country, earning him exile from Vietnam and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination (from Martin Luher King!) Seeing his practice as grounded in the real world, he has championed Engaged Buddhism for decades. From Thich Nhat Hanh I have learned to appreciate the spirituality of day-to-day life.

It’s hard to imagine what people thought of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) when he first appeared on the art scene in the 1960s. A slight, extremely pale man in a silver wig (he had lost his hair due to a childhood illness) making paintings of consumer packaging was no one’s idea of what an “artist” was, but he changed that. As much as The Beatles or Madison Avenue, Warhol created what we now know as “The 60s,” and later redefined (for better or worse) celebrity culture. He was also a queer trailblazer, painting homoerotic imagery when other artists were still closeted, and using actors from across the sexual spectrum in his movies. From Warhol I learned, ironically, something similar to what I’ve learned from Thich Nhat Hanh: how to find the beautiful and strange in the mundane. He also loved cats, which along with his technique of repurposing ought to make patron saint of The Internet.

Last but not least is Jim Henson (1936-1990), someone I’ve been aware of my whole life. I have learned so many things from this man, starting with how to read via Sesame Street. But Sesame Street and even more so The Muppet Show had stealth missions to bring anarchic comedy to the masses. Most importantly, Henson showed me how to deal with people in a decent manner without sacrificing yourself. While Henson was known as one of the most gentle people in all of entertainment, he was also a shrewd businessman who parlayed his syndicated show (that was turned down by every network) into a media empire. Whenever anyone says you have to be a ruthless jerk to succeed in business (let alone show business), I point to Jim Henson.

These are just some of the men who inspire me. They may not be yours. The point of this article is to start a dialogue. Who are your avatars of manhood?

This entry was posted in awesomeness, lighthearted, noseriouslywhatabouttehmenz and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Who Are Your Real-Life Heroes?

  1. Alex says:

    One of my heroes is Scarlett. She’s a transgender woman and she’s a professional gamer. At a recent Major League Gaming tournament she earned a name for herself by causing a good few upsets of Korean players (who tend to dominate in this particular e-sport) who people thought would defeat everyone else easily, thus earning her the nickname of “Korean Kryptonite”.

    Nobody gave a shit that she was a woman, or that she was a transgender woman. Everyone was just excited because she played really well and made drama and great storylines by beating players who everyone thought would get really far. That’s one of the reasons I love e-sports – when would this ever happen in mainstream sports?

  2. dancinbojangles says:

    Sadly, most of my heroes are fictional…

  3. Lydia says:

    I’m very much inspired by Carl Sagan, who showed through his books and his wonderful series “Cosmos” that there is a place for reverence and awe within rationalism and science. He’s almost a spiritual guide for me.

  4. Lamech says:

    First, I don’t really that being “Male/Female” when it comes to being a role model/hero. So I’ll just list a few heroes without regards to gender.
    Joan of Arc: Divinely/schizophrenically inspired brilliant war leader (and possibly brilliant tactician.) This person was amazing especially for someone so young and in that era with discrimination against woman.
    Otep: This person makes absolutely amazing music.
    I suspect Heisenberg should go in here too. Maybe, just from looking at the history it appears he may have done somethings to harm the German nuclear research program, and intentionally mislead them on making of the weapons.

    Hmm… these probably aren’t the best people to look up to as heroes. Divine inspiration is a) hard to come by and b) not controllable. Defeating the Nazi’s, while heroic, is a sort of obsolete skill set. And being a talented musician while hard-work doesn’t really tell you about the quality of a person.

  5. Kirk says:

    I tend to look up to PZ Myers as a very positive role model. His ability to speak eloquently about issues rationally while still being passionate and compassionate and just generally acknowledging the human-ness of ourselves is amazing and inspiring to me.

  6. This guy. Too often pacifists get painted as either magically-spiritually-evolved-to-the-point-of-barely-human (Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jesus, the Buddha etc.) or dismissed as cowardly or unpractical.

    Archibald Baxter is an example of a totally normal, practical guy who went through the kind of suffering usually associated with more traditional “glorious” war stories, then came back to New Zealand and had an ordinary practical life. His autobiography (linked from the wiki article) is well worth a read.

  7. Hugh says:

    I don’t believe in having “heroes”, and I think the world would be a lot better off without the concept of “heroism”.

  8. Not Me says:

    I don’t know if you’d call them “heroes” exactly, and I probably wouldn’t use that term to describe them, but during my older child/teen years I looked up to Albert Einstein and Alan Turing (I’ve always been of the intellectual sort) and had sort of a crush on actor Harrison Ford.

  9. daelyte says:

    Norman Borlaug, often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. He was an American agronomist, humanitarian, and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution”.

    Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books. His works have been published in all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. Asimov is widely considered a master of hard science fiction and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, he was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime. Asimov’s most famous work is the Foundation Series; his other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series. It has been pointed out that most science fiction writers since the 1950s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his or deliberately avoiding anything like his style.

    Saint Benedict of Nursia, creator of the “Rule of Saint Benedict” which became one of the most influential religious rules in Western Christendom. For this reason, Benedict is often called the founder of western Christian monasticism. The early Middle Ages have been called “the Benedictine centuries.” In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the influence St Benedict had on Western Europe. The pope said that “with his life and work St Benedict exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture” and helped Europe to emerge from the “dark night of history” that followed the fall of the Roman empire.

    The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict. The most striking feature in the reform was the return to manual labour, especially field-work, a special characteristic of Cistercian life. Cistercian architecture is considered one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture. Additionally, in relation to fields such as agriculture, hydraulic engineering and metallurgy, the Cistercians became the main force of technological diffusion in medieval Europe.

    Grace Hopper, an American computer scientist and United States Navy officer. A pioneer in the field, she was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and developed the first compiler for a computer programming language. She conceptualized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages. She is credited with popularizing the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches (motivated by an actual moth removed from the computer). Due to the breadth of her accomplishments and her naval rank, she is sometimes referred to as “Amazing Grace.”

    Ibn al-Haytham, better known as Alhazen, was a Muslim scientist and polymath described in various sources as either Arabic or Persian. Alhazen made significant contributions to the principles of optics, as well as to physics, astronomy, mathematics, ophthalmology, philosophy, visual perception, and to the scientific method.

    Marie Curie was a French-Polish physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to date to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences – physics and chemistry. Her achievements included a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today.

    Louis Pasteur was a French chemist and microbiologist born in Dole. He is remembered for his remarkable breakthroughs in the causes and preventions of diseases. His discoveries reduced mortality from puerperal fever, and he created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax. His experiments supported the germ theory of disease. He was best known to the general public for inventing a method to stop milk and wine from causing sickness, a process that came to be called pasteurization. He is regarded as one of the three main founders of microbiology, together with Ferdinand Cohn and Robert Koch. Pasteur also made many discoveries in the field of chemistry, most notably the molecular basis for the asymmetry of certain crystals.

    François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and separation of church and state. Voltaire was a prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poetry, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform, despite strict censorship laws with harsh penalties for those who broke them. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma and the French institutions of his day.

    I could go on, but I’m tired now.

  10. Engineer Krause says:

    As far as actual role models, I don’t think I really have terribly good ones. The role models I really wish I COULD emulate are all fictional. But the real life ones would be my two engineer grandfathers. I follow in their line.

    Heroes are a bit easier. (Incidentally, while some heroisms such as ‘serving your nation is always good even if you know it is misusing you’ are bad I reject aheroism as naive and undesireable). I’d say the ones that come to mind best are Plato, Beaumarchios (the writer of the plays that the operas Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville are based on), and William Kamkwamba, the Malawian teen (now studying engineering!) who built a wind turbine out of bits and pieces and bike parts in a state of wretched poverty.

  11. Engineer Krause says:

    ooops. On the female heroes side, Jeri Ellsworth. She MADE TRANSISTORS! IN A GARAGE!

  12. monkey says:

    Note: i decided to only include men because I wanted to write something positive about men, and show that “being a man” can mean different things: queer, celibate, married to a woman, manly, dandyish, creative, tough, gentle, etc. I wanted to move beyond war heroes and sports stars.

    If I were to list my female heroes, they would be Dorothy Day, Pauline Kael, Simone Weil, Mahalia Jackson, and Diane di Prima.

    As to heroes and heroism, if you bristle at the word choose role model instead. I just wanted to widen the scope of the men we look up to.

  13. monkey says:

    Herroyaldingwall: I will have to learn more about Archibald Baxter.

    In terms of pacifism, I admire A J Muste, who was a major influence on MLK.

    While not a pacifist, General Smedley Butler was one of the first to expose the Military Industrial Complex. He thought the only route to ending war was to remove the profit, a radical but interesting idea.

  14. Hugh says:

    Ironically, in New Zealand, Archibald Baxter is more famous for being the father of James K Baxter than he is for his pacifist activism. Probably because pacifism is kind of out of fashion in NZ, while wooly pseudo-mystical indigenous-esque nationalism is very much in vogue.

    If you do want to learn more about Baxter and his place in the conscientious objection movement, a very good (although critically panned) book was released about New Zealand during World War I a few years ago, called “The Great Wrong War”. It’s not specifically about the conscientious objectors, since it’s intended to be a general history, but it pays far more attention to them in context than any other general history before or since.

  15. Flyingkal says:

    My first “real” boss, who told me that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as they are discovered and corrected before the report is released. 🙂

  16. Jonathan says:

    Dunno about “Heroes” but I did a blogpost on “Inspirations” a while back. These were: Eddie Izzard, Vicky Lee, Richard O’Brien, Julia Grant, Ian McKellen, Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, Riki Wilchins, Dorothy Allison, Patrick Califia, Stephen Whittle — for various idiosyncratic and personal reasons (see http://malefemme.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/inspirations.html).

  17. Jonathan says:

    Ah, were they all supposed to be men? Oops.

  18. monkey says:

    Jonathan: they don’t have to be men. I focused on men because I felt the need to celebrate men, or at least show that we don’t just “learn to be men” from the obvious examples of masculinity, I.e. macho movie stars and athletes.

    I’m sorry if that’s limiting. It just seemed that men are so often on the defensive that I wanted to write something nice about the men I admire.

  19. The_L says:

    A few of my heroes, both male and female:

    Caspian, from the Narnia series. He’s in danger of his life, with pretty much no allies. Then he befriends beings who should be his enemies and overcomes the odds to become a wise, benevolent leader of his people.

    Mara of the Acoma (Riftwar series), for pretty much exactly the same reason. In fact, name pretty much every fantasy hero/ine who fits that storyline. I must have read a thousand variations of that same story, and it never fails to impress me.

    Ford Prefect, who makes it through all kinds of unusual situations simply by having a sense of humor and trusting his instincts.

    Penelope, for never giving up hope, and her son Telemachus, for actually acting to help bring about his hopes.

    General/Fugitive/All-Around Badass Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender. There is nothing about that man not worth living up to: compassion, humor, love of life, courage, honor, strength (both physical and moral), and of course, appreciation for a good cup of tea. 🙂

    My mother, for showing me there IS life after abuse, and that no one has the right to make you feel worthless.

    Most of the women on my mother’s side of the family, who are accepting of anyone and anything except for the sentence “You can’t do that.”

  20. Rob Allen says:

    Many boys of my generation grew up with John Wayne as their masculine role model. My parents were more into musicals so I tend to think of Howard Keel as my model of traditional masculinity. But I always identified more with Danny Kaye.

  21. Men's RIghts Activist Lieutenant says:

    Pedro Martinez, David Foster Wallace, Sarah Vowell, George R.R. Martin, Sady Doyle, Thomas Pynchon, Pink, Pauline Kael, Thom Yorke.

  22. RR says:

    When I was an army brat we moved to Germany, and we stayed in the BA Hotel waiting for housing. I walked down to the tv room, there was only one American station, and Carl Sagan was on. Telling me about the universe. I was nine, and that was the start of my love for science and math.

  23. Doug S. says:

    Here’s a couple of relatively obscure names: Eliezer Yudkowsky and Chris Avellone.

  24. ozymandias42 says:

    Doug: *I* know who both of those people are. 😛

  25. f. says:

    Just gonna list some dudes here. I’m pretty into the design work of Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, and Vidal Sassoon. And the art of Yves Klein, Alexander Calder, and Ansel Adams. If I had unlimited amounts of money, my home would be full of their work. (and my head would have a Sassoon bob)

    In terms of an inspiring life, Frederick Douglass. Just… Frederick Douglass.

  26. Yiab says:

    Alan Turing and Kurt Godel. To a lesser extent Georg Cantor and Paul Erdos. Anybody who knows who all four of those men are without looking them up can guess my area of expertise.

  27. ballgame says:

    Glenn Greenwald.

  28. Doug S. says:

    @Ozy: Well, of course. You’re awesome that way. 🙂

  29. d.d says:

    I am the hero of the story of my life…

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