While I’m sure that growing up wealthy comes in handy for inconsequential things like becoming president or keeping your electricity on, growing up poor came with its own bevy of benefits that I wouldn’t trade for all the boiled hot dogs and hand-me-down clothes in the world: it helped sharpen my imagination into a valuable tool, develop a solid chin (kids are less likely to pick on a poor kid with a quality jab), and showed me the value to be found in things that are cheap.
It also made me prone to hero worship – because there’s one thing all heroes have in common: by the end of the movie or TV show, they’ve worked themselves into a better place. I couldn’t change that my family lived in a trailer, I couldn’t help that my dad had a decidedly medieval approach to discipline… but I could work. Sure, I was wearing clothes from the Salvation Army, but I was wearing them in the “gifted” classes. Sure, my cleats didn’t say Nike on the side (often, I didn’t have cleats at all), but you’d better believe my footwear saw more miles than my better equipped teammates.
As far as I was concerned, poverty, my dad’s run-ins with the law, moving around so often I stopped worrying about making friends, these seemingly perpetual barriers between me and the kids I thought were normal weren’t a curse or a slight from fate – they were the first act of a movie I saw myself as the star of.
Like the stars I saw on TV, I knew it’s not about where you start… what matters is where you end up. So sure, I was no star athlete, even when I was one of only three sophomores to make the varsity squad on my high school football team – but I was something else: a kid that was willing to work longer and harder than anyone on the team, all the while picturing heroes of mine like Brisco County Jr., a Harvard educated bounty hunter in the Wild West avenging his father, or Batman – a guy that harnessed the pain of his childhood to become something great.
One day when I was 11 or so, it was that hero emulation that led me to stand up to my father as he took out his troubles on my mom. I don’t remember a lot about that night, but I ended up in a hospital, he ended up in jail, and once it hit the papers, we all ended up moving again. For a long time, I saw that move to the woods of Vermont as specifically my fault; and there I was, alone again, not all that interested in making new friends – but as always, willing to work.
Children’s minds, of course, tend not to think in such dramatic overtures, and I didn’t see myself as a tough kid (and admittedly a bit of a bully) because of my upbringing, I got through the tough days by pretending to be Dutch in “Predator” or John Spartan from “Demolition Man.” Hero worship helped to make me the best I could be, regardless of the circumstances I found myself in.
As an adult, hero worship remains an important element in my life – which presents a problem in the modern climate, as I’m sure you can imagine. We, as a collective culture, have taken to tearing down heroes in recent years. We can’t celebrate a holiday without the masses reminding us of the sins of our forefathers. We can’t like a movie without a hashtag demanding we revise our opinions because some producer is a douche bag. We can’t cheer anyone on without someone reminding us that they were arrested in the 80s or said something politically unfavorable during an interview in Japan. In the modern world, we have constant access to our heroes, allowing us to shine a light on their vulnerabilities, their weaknesses, their faults… until no one seems all that heroic anymore.
Neil Armstrong knew it would happen. He saw the legend that was “the first man to walk on the moon” and realized early on that he, a kid from Ohio, could never live up to grandiose image we all had of him. He chose to lead a quiet life, far from the unblinking eye of our attention, because his inherent fallibility would prove to be his undoing if he didn’t.
By now, you may be asking yourself, “well, this is some interesting pop-culture analysis combined with a trip down memory lane… but what does that have to do with getting in shape?” Well, for me, a lot – and depending on your ability to self-motivate, it may be the same for you.
Guys like Dwayne Johnson, with a massive social media reach and a seemingly endless amount of positivity to distribute to the world, aren’t just heroes for kids these days – he’s a hero of mine too. As adults, we tend to dismiss that sort of stuff, even pick on one another for it – and I have no doubt that someone can find something to hate about the wrestler-turned movie star and will no doubt be eager to share it, and their hero-less misery, with us all.
The thing is, I don’t care. No one, not George Washington, Chris Kyle, Peggy Whitson, or the firefighters pulling kids out of burning buildings somewhere in the world as I write this, are without faults. We’re all weak, we all make mistakes, and sometimes, we all do things we’re ashamed of – and in a culture so eager to drag those shadows out into the light, we’ve become a society that judges one another based on the skeletons in our closets, rather than looking for the bits and pieces of the world around us that are worthy of emulation.
Sometimes, of course, those skeletons are so large or plentiful that we need to air them out and burn our heroes in effigy. The Harvey Weinsteins, the Larry Nassars… we need to drag their transgressions into the light and let them burn as a beacon to other shit-heads that would victimize the helpless. But when I talk about the good it did me to watch “Last Action Hero” as a scared kid in a hospital bed… I don’t need a lecture about how Arnold Schwarzenegger cheated on his wife the same year he filmed it. His social life, even his personal politics, exist in a universe entirely separate from the good his character did for an 11-year-old me.
Like George Washington owning slaves or Martin Luther King Jr.’s rumored infidelity, I don’t need to excuse or condone every aspect of every moment of a person’s life to gain something as a person from being aware of their existence. I choose, instead, to compartmentalize a person’s value to our culture separately from their flaws.
Ghandi was a racist. Mother Theresa took money from monsters. John F. Kennedy was a womanizer and Marilyn Monroe wasn’t nearly as deep as the memes attributed to her would have you believe… but I ask you, what’s more valuable to us as a people: striking them from our memories because of their faults… or embracing the lessons they had to offer you as a person, whatever it may be?
Having heroes can drive you to be more than you currently are. They can help you get through hard times (even if it’s just by pretending to be as tough as Brisco County Jr.), and they leave you feeling capable of aiming high enough that, one day, someone might even look up to you… past your flaws, your weaknesses and your shame.
Maybe one day, you can be the guy or girl that helps a kid like me, sitting in a hospital bed and certain that he just tore his family apart, feel like this is just another chapter in a greater story – a story that’s sure to have a happy ending if he just sticks it out long enough. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the best. You just have to work.
One more rep. One more lap. One more morning spent pushing through cold joints and sore muscles. You don’t have to be bigger than me, stronger than me, or better than me to be my hero. You just have to be working hard. I’m proud to say that here at SOFREP, on the writer side, on the reader side, all throughout our little corner of the internet… I’m surrounded by heroes… and that keeps me working.
Until next time, I’ll see you on the blacktop.
Images courtesy of the author