I’ve always wondered if the deep, subconscious reason I love romance novels so much is because by their very definition Romance as a genre has happy endings. Part of what defines a romantic story as being a Romance is that the hero and heroine get together in the end and have a happily ever after. The heroine is empowered and the hero is, at heart, a good man, even though he might start out as a scoundrel. It’s a wonderful, beautiful worldview.
Unfortunately, it’s a worldview we don’t seem to see much of in reality.
I wonder if the reason I have always loved romance novels is because within the first decade of my life my happily ever after was shattered. My parents were divorced because my dad cheated and left us for “her”. My very first hero turned out to be a dud. I developed agoraphobia, which is pretty much the polar opposite of feeling empowered. Life was a struggle from that very early age. Then I discovered this world, this genre, where heroes were strong and faithful and noble, where the heroines were able to stand up for themselves and get what they wanted in life, and where everyone got what they deserved in the end.
Happily ever after.
There comes a point in all of our lives where we realize that our heroes aren’t perfect. It doesn’t matter how highly esteemed they are or how charming or noble or altruistic they may appear on the outside. Everyone has faults. Everyone has bad days and makes bad decisions. It’s just the way humanity works. But there’s a world of difference between a genuine hero who makes a bad decision now and then and someone who has been set up to be a hero who never deserved to be lauded in the first place.
What bothers me is when people fail to realize the difference between a true hero making a mistake and a false hero getting called out for what they really are. The former is sad and disappointing because we, as humans, want so badly to believe in heroes. The latter is a cause for anger because that false hero willfully duped everyone into thinking they were better than they were. But far too often we, as humans in our own right, react to both cases the same way, with fury and shouting, with pitchforks and torches. It hurts us that the people we wanted to believe in are just fumbling along like we are.
I’m thinking of a particular instance of a hero gone wrong that was very much in the news last week, especially if, like me, you’re from Pennsylvania. I don’t want to invite controversy so I’m not going to mention this person or the event outright. And I would ask that you, my dear readers, refrain from commenting directly about that whole event. But I feel like the reactions and outcry to the situation was a perfect example of what happens when we lose faith in a hero.
We want to believe that if we have a hero they will be perfect across the board. The problem is, humans are not perfect. At least not in reality. In a real world of moving parts, gray-areas, and uncertain motivations mistakes are bound to be made. What worries and saddens me is how quickly people rush to tear down the same people they have put on a pedestal in the first place. And not reasonably or with compassion either. We tear people to shreds. We vilify them in every way. We crucify them. This has been going on for over 2000 years.
But we need to believe in heroes. It is the optimistic heart of every one of us that wants someone to look up to, someone to revere and to emulate. Whether we’re religious or not, we need gods. I think they give us hope and teach us about life. In a perfect world those people are our parents. But parents are people to. I wonder if a portion of the anger that people felt towards last week’s fallen hero was born out of a disappointment in their own parents for not doing more, for not keeping them safe from the world. I still remember how much it hurt when I realized that the one person who should have been protecting and nurturing me more than anyone else was the root cause of all of my suffering.
Which is why I love romance novels. It’s why I think that literature and the arts are so important to us. Sometimes the best heroes, the ones who are the most reliable and teach us how to be, are the heroes between the pages of books. These are the heroes that show us what love is, what nobility is, how to sacrifice your own desires for a greater goal. Yes, you can argue that literary heroes are not real, but the values they espouse are. Having just this weekend watched Sense and Sensibility, I would rather look up to Edward Ferrars and his determination to do the right thing and stick to his secret engagement with Lucy Steele, even though he recognized that it was foolish, even though he knew in meeting Eleanor he had met the love of his life, as a hero than just about any living person the media has set up as a hero. Edward stuck to his guns and in the end he got what he deserved. I don’t think the same can be said for the people we put up on pedestals in the real world.
But real or imagined, the onus in hero-worship falls on our shoulders. We, the average people looking for a hero, have to keep our heads when humanity strikes. We need to react with compassion and mercy and not pillory anyone who disappoints us. There is a world of difference between the imperfect hero and the villain masquerading as a hero. We need to use discernment when we deal with each and not let our personal disappointments bleed into situations where they don’t belong. But most of all we have to remember the good old words “Judge not lest ye be judged.”