I need a hero.
June 25, 2010 9:47 AM   Subscribe

I need a hero.

I need a hero.

When I was a kid, I had heroes. Astronauts. Movie stars. Historical figures.

Now all I see are people with massive, deal-breaking flaws.

* They reached great heights of achievement -- with the benefit of huge family fortunes.
* They were racists or criminals.
* They were religious fanatics.
* They were insane.
* They were ... just ... plain ... dicks. No other word for it.

Here's an example: Teddy Roosevelt. His personal achievements are too many to list.

But ...

* It's easy to be an adventurous young man when you're already blindingly rich. Thanks, dad.
* Progressive politics for his time. But thought that whites were literally higher on the evolutionary ladder. And said so. Often.
* Founded the National Parks system. So he could hunt and kill exotic animals.

I can accept these people as people. But they can't look at them through the lens of modern standards and say they're heroes. I can't point at them and say to my children, "This was a great man/woman, and you should emulate him/her."

I need a hero. Make with the suggestions.
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Society & Culture (124 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Mister Rogers.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 9:48 AM on June 25, 2010 [48 favorites]

Quick question before I really dive in: Does your hero need to be male?
posted by Lizsterr at 9:49 AM on June 25, 2010

Stephen Fry is my current hero.
posted by Think_Long at 9:50 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Does your hero need to be male?

He said "man/woman."
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:51 AM on June 25, 2010

Lance Armstrong, conquered cancer, won seven Tours de France, never tested positive. Raised millions for charity. Divorced his first wife, had several well-publicized flings (one of the Olsen twins?). You can't win.
posted by fixedgear at 9:51 AM on June 25, 2010

Jim Henson
Randy Pausch (as in his career and his personal life; nothing says hero to me than saying "fuck cancer, I'm going to live life to the fullest' and does it with grace)
posted by stormpooper at 9:51 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Harriet Tubman
posted by brundlefly at 9:52 AM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I just saw adventurer Ann Bancroft at a taping of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me in Minneapolis yesterday. She seems pretty damned awesome in the hero category.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:52 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also think Hans Rosling is pretty awesome. Check out a few of his TED talks.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:54 AM on June 25, 2010

Carl Sagan. Alan Watts.

Why is having money necessarily a character flaw?
posted by cmoj at 9:54 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

One of my heroes is Sam Fuller. YMMV.
posted by brundlefly at 9:55 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

The person whom I most admire is the late Isaac Asimov. He was a hero of the intellect. His writing has been a great inspiration to me. But your personality could be very different from mine. If Asimov speaks to you at all, try reading his biography, "I, Asimov".
posted by grizzled at 9:55 AM on June 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

As a resident of the City of Philadelphia, I am legally obligated to offer "Benjamin Franklin" as an answer to this question.

That said, human beings are still human. They're going to have flaws. If you want perfect heroes, you'll have to turn to abstractions and fiction. As you pointed out, TR's a great example. We can hold up, say, Martin Luther King Jr as an examplar, but does that mean we're praising his adultery? Nah. Damn fine human being overall - but still very human, and flawed as such. You're never going to find an actual flesh-and-blood human being who you can point to and say, unambiguously, "emulate this person" - if you think you have, that just means you don't know enough about them yet.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:55 AM on June 25, 2010 [11 favorites]

Maybe Cholene Espinosa? One of six women to ever fly the U-2, went on to do all kinds of diversely but unambiguously Good Things.

I can't find anything on her background, but she's from Española, New Mexico, which strongly suggests (though does not conclusively prove) she was not born to significant privilege.
posted by pts at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2010

Oh, sorry Jaltcoh, he did!

I was already on track to say Carl Sagan, as cmoj suggested. I would have him as my husband, father, and any other male figure in my life. He's the bee's knees.
posted by Lizsterr at 9:57 AM on June 25, 2010

Norman Borlaug
posted by timsteil at 9:59 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Now all I see are people with massive, deal-breaking flaws.

Okay, I'm going to be a bit contrarian here. If you feel like it's a derail flag it and ignore it. But:

It seems to me that one of the things that happens as you get older is exactly that you become aware that humans are...human. And it seems even more obvious to me that those who do great things are those who both are subject to the most criticism, the most in-depth exhumation of their private affairs; and hand-in-hand with that, those capable of the greatest achievements are those capable of the greatest failures as well. "You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette." I don't know if what you are asking is realistic. Perhaps there are people out there who are perfectly heroic, but I expect that my idea of perfectly heroic will not just fall apart for someone else but will actually entail the complete opposite of someone else's idea of heroic (for example, I'm sure someone out there thinks Osama bin Laden is a hero, although that's an extreme example...). There's probably a continuum of heroism from a "moral analysis" point of view.

So I don't know how to answer your question. My hero has always been John Coltrane, for his dedication and brilliance, but not everyone will see him that way. I expect that you are feeling disgusted with humanity and are looking for some redeeming person to bring you out of that but maybe the answer is really that you have to realize that we are all human, and those of us who achieve the most are probably the most human.
posted by dubitable at 10:00 AM on June 25, 2010 [21 favorites]

Well, this sounds cheesy as hell, but don't forget about all the 'everyday heroes' - doctors, firefighters, teachers, NPO project managers, secret agents.

Sometimes being a hero means knowing when you did the wrong thing and admitted it, not *never* doing something un-hero-like. Like sometimes it's how they deal with their fatal flaws that make them heroes (a la Achilles).

All that said, this guy is my hero.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:00 AM on June 25, 2010

What about Henrietta Lacks? Her family just got the recognition they deserved for her amazing contributions to science and humankind. And, of course, she never even knew about it. That's the best kind of hero to me.
posted by Lizsterr at 10:00 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lenny Stutnik - Hero of the Potomac
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:03 AM on June 25, 2010

Oh and Matt Haughey, obvs.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:05 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

This post by Pastabagel regarding Mr. Rogers might clarify my suggestion.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 10:06 AM on June 25, 2010

Can't you just pick and choose what you like about them? Currently learning about Radio. Ira Glass is a hero because of how long it took him to understand radio and work at it, I still hate a lot of the choices he makes. Jad Abumrad is a hero because of the sound design he produces. damali ayo is a hero because of the way she plays with interesting topics. Robert Krulwich is hero because the man can make sandwich construction FASCINATING, instead of just interesting. With their powers combined they are THE ULTIMATE RADIO PRODUCER. You can learn how to behave from thinking about people's flaws, too. Just think of them as "I don't want to be that guy moments." Also isn't that fatal flaw shit an awesome lesson for kids to trust their own judgement and not always kowtow to the powers that be? Emperor has no clothes and such?
posted by edbles at 10:06 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also cheesy but I still have this thought of "What would Mrs. Tully, my second grade teacher, say about what I'm about to do?" My Mom always told me to ask myself that when I was little because I really valued Mrs. Tully's opinion. I still do, but it's not so black and white now. Mrs. Tully is still nice, non-judgy and interesting. Maybe I'm jaded for not having "bigger" heroes...
posted by ShadePlant at 10:07 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some random ideas:
Stephen Hawking
Abraham Lincoln
everyone who fought against Hitler (literally or metaphorically, e.g. those who hid Jews in their houses during the Holocaust)

You can easily look through black history and find so many examples of civil rights activists:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (oh, but he wasn't perfect, so he doesn't count ... ?)
Rosa Parks
Thurgood Marshall
John Lewis
Beth Rikey

People who created great things despite physical handicaps:
Helen Keller
Stevie Wonder
Beethoven (was almost totally deaf by the time he wrote the 9th Symphony)

Maybe think about some more ancient folks:

And I agree with Tomorrowful that you just shouldn't focus too much on "this person doesn't count because they weren't perfect." For that matter, does being rich disqualify someone from being great? OK, so life isn't fair -- does that mean we should blind ourselves to the virtues of anyone who came from a wealthy upbringing? Let's face it: most people on your list of "heroes" are probably going to be very famous, and very famous people tend to be very well-off. That's not a problem with your list. That's just life.

And your kids will be better off if you show them the world as it really is, not some airbrushed version where everyone who's heroic is also flawless. (In my book, the former is heroic; the latter, cowardly.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:09 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm ashamed both for myself and for everyone else at mefi that none of us immediately suggested someone who very recently was on the blue:

Manute Bol.

Born to humble means, found himself in the NBA, and proceeded to go more or less broke trying to help his native Sudan.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:10 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'd suggest that you can't be a hero unless you have some significant flaws. Being a hero is more about what you do to overcome your flaws. We can't control the situations we are born into...but how do we overcome those hardships or advantages...what do we make of ourselves?

I would argue that heroes are those that reach their potential and do so in a way that includes a commitment to service...an attempt to better the circumstances of others as they better themselves.

If you are a father, you can do this for your children. The shape it takes does not matter. The scale of the specific accomplishment does not matter. If you are this kind of man for your children, I bet as they grow into adulthood, they will include you on any hero list they are likely to find inspiration from.
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:11 AM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Eugene Debs.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:12 AM on June 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

My Dad. He's awesome.
posted by Elmore at 10:12 AM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Mr. Rogers, Norman Borlaug, Stephen Fry... all fantastic choices.

But if you need someone more action star, I'm going to nominate Ranulph Fiennes, he's certainly flawed, but in interesting ways; he's the kind of person who, when not exploring or raising money for charity, he might just attempt to blow up a dam because it is ruining the aesthetic of a pretty village.
posted by quin at 10:13 AM on June 25, 2010

This thread should help.

That said, my favorite heroes are the human ones, whose remarkable acts are balanced by their flaws. They mean we have shots at being heroes too.
posted by sallybrown at 10:14 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I looked up Hugh Jackman when I ordered "Oklahoma!" off Netflix and he was in it. I thought, eh, he just got the role because he was popular. Turns out it was before his big movie roles. He really can sing, he really can act...and then further reading, it turns out he's still with the wife he married before he got big, they have adopted kids and seem like a devoted couple. He seems really into his work, putting a lot of off-screen time into things he needs to learn to get it right. He also seems to have a great, silly sense of humor, doing things like breaking out in song when there's an outtake.

Perhaps there's negatives about him that I don't know--I don't pay much attention to celebrities, I guess--but what I have read seems quite admirable.

Johnny Cash made a lot of mistakes in early life, but when he met June Carter the two of them turned their lives around and stayed together until they died.

Patrick Swayze surprised me (in a positive way), what info there is readily available about him.
posted by galadriel at 10:15 AM on June 25, 2010

I know quite a few people who regard Paul Farmer as a hero.
posted by googly at 10:18 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ditto on both Fred Rogers (always "Mister," not "Mr.") and Jim Henson.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:19 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rosalie Abella.
Born in a displaced persons camp in Germany post-WWII, where her father did administration for the Allies' resettlement effort.
A judge by the age of 29. Took the bench when she was pregnant (first person in Canada to do this).
Commissioned a panel on employment equity (our equivalent of affirmative action)
Huge in the Human Rights field, especially with regards to disabled and First Nations.

She spoke at a conference I went to last year. I've never seen a more powerful speaker. She spoke about the need for international law, and how it's failed the poor and powerless so far. Absolutely amazing woman.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:24 AM on June 25, 2010

Acts are heroic - not people. Applaud the act not the person and you will never be disappointed.
posted by any major dude at 10:25 AM on June 25, 2010 [13 favorites]

Also, a big nth to Norman Borlaug and Mister Rogers. Both truly exemplary humans.
posted by electroboy at 10:25 AM on June 25, 2010

Martin Scorsese grew up a sickly child, a tormented Catholic, became a drug addict... and still managed to turn it around and make films like Raging Bull. When his mother was still alive, he employed her as an actress and crew member. He's made excellent documentaries on the Italian-American experience. He's an expert in film preservation. He pretty much made De Niro's career. He formed an enduring editorial partnership with Thelma Schoonmaker.

Complicated? Yeah. Married five times despite all that staunch Catholicism? Yeah. Recovered junkie? Yeah. But in the balance, he's done a lot of good.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:27 AM on June 25, 2010

I'm also weirdly fond of Paul Dirac, but I don't necessarily know that he meets your criteria-- sure, he made a ton of important discoveries about quantum mechanics when quantum mechanics consisted of about 40 really driven and somewhat insane college kids across the world, but he had a pretty awful relationship with his family thanks to his legendary lack of social graces.

He was a geek before geekdom was recognized, though-- into animation and comics, intensely driven, lived in Spartan austerity because he was focused on the theoretical work, never said a word more than was needed. Certainly, if you need a physics hero, better him than Oppenheimer, who seriously tried to poison his tutor once and was arguably not terribly stable.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:31 AM on June 25, 2010

There is no such thing as a perfect human being. We all have our flaws. We all have the potential for good and evil. I would ask you in response to your question, why are you letting the evil outshine the good in people?
posted by crios at 10:32 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I lean toward Bill Moyers. He's spent his entire lifetime bringing intelligent information (and a deep appreciation for the arts) to the populace.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:33 AM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hanley Denning, founder of Safe Passage:

Hanley Denning went to Guatemala in August of 1997 to learn Spanish, never imagining she would stay. She had been teaching in North Carolina after receiving her master’s degree in education from Wheelock College and was frustrated by her inability to communicate with her Spanish-speaking students. Upon arriving in Guatemala, Hanley began volunteering with children and adults living in small towns near Antigua, Guatemala, in an effort to improve her Spanish. One year extended into two and just as Hanley was preparing to return to the United States in 1999, a good friend named Regina Palacios urged her, as a favor, to accompany her on a visit to the slums adjacent to the Guatemala City garbage dump . . . The very same week Hanley visited the dump, she sold her computer and her car and, using some money she had in savings, opened the doors of Safe Passage (known in Spanish as "Camino Seguro") by enrolling 40 of Guatemala’s poorest children in school. These children couldn’t afford the books, school supplies, and enrollment fees required by the public school. This initial group received tutoring, a healthy snack, and the care and attention they so desperately needed. Another 70 children participated in a drop-in program when they weren’t working in the dump.

Over the next eight years, Hanley's original program grew. The educational reinforcement program found a new home in a safe and beautiful building further removed from the garbage dump, and an early childhood center and adult literacy program were established, thanks to the commitment and ambition of staff, community members, volunteers, and international supporters. Hanley's vision of providing a road out of poverty through accessible education has sustained Safe Passage into its second decade.

On January 18, 2007, Hanley was killed in a tragic automobile accident in Guatemala. However, through her many admirers and dedicated Safe Passage staff and volunteers, her vision continues today, stronger than ever."

I think of Hanley and the lives she's changed every time I think "The problem is too big. There isn't anything I can do to help."
posted by anastasiav at 10:33 AM on June 25, 2010

I came in to suggest Paul Farmer.

Al Haynes is someone I also greatly admire. I don't like to use the word "hero" for people who are forced into the situation they're in, but his ability to keep cool under the circumstances and the lives he saved put him very close to hero territory in my book.
posted by bondcliff at 10:33 AM on June 25, 2010

Paul Offit devoted 25 years of his life to developing a vaccine for rotavirus, nasty thing that kills hundreds of thousands of children a year. He's a hero.

For this, anti-vaccine cranks have made him a target and even threatened his life. He continues to speak on the importance of protecting children against diseases we can prevent via vaccine, despite the threats and irrational hatred.
posted by galadriel at 10:33 AM on June 25, 2010

I think there are heroic acts, not lives. A person's choices can be heroic, but it is not possible to live as a hero. In this sense, I don't think it's possible to be a hero.
posted by xod at 10:35 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is not what you were asking for, but I thought of Lyndon Johnson. He was a deeply flawed guy who had a history of bigotry and manipulation, lied about his WWII service constantly, cheated on his wife, and was as responsible as anyone for the needless tragedy of the Vietnam war. These are grave, grave marks against him.

But he was also the greatest civil rights President of the 20th century. He clearly saw how supporting civil rights would tear his party apart, but he used all of his powers and skills to do it anyway. His "We Shall Overcome" speech before Congress was a show of political courage that I don't think I've ever seen in my lifetime. From Robert Caro:


When Johnson stepped to the lectern on Capitol Hill that night, he adopted the great anthem of the civil rights movement as his own.

“Even if we pass this bill,” he said, “the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.”

And, Lyndon Johnson said, “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

He paused, and then he said, “And we shall overcome.”

Martin Luther King was watching the speech at the home of a family in Selma with some of his aides, none of whom had ever, during all the hard years, seen Dr. King cry. But Lyndon Johnson said, “We shall overcome” — and they saw him cry then.


Surely there's something to be said for looking for the greatness of people with flaws as great as our own.
posted by Clambone at 10:35 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Bob Moog
Frank Zappa
Raymond Scott
Nikola Tesla
Leon Theremin
Bill Hicks (NSFW)
Brother Theodore (Jeez, every time I watch this linked video, I laugh my ass off, I can't help it)

Those are some of my heroes, YMMV.
posted by dbiedny at 10:35 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jack London.
posted by notyou at 10:39 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mother Teresa
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:49 AM on June 25, 2010

Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Brian May, Mister Rogers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Martin Luther King, Atul Gawande, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shantideva, Leonardo da Vinci, my meditation teacher, Ludwig van Beethoven and Mary Oliver are some of my heroes. I have quite a few. None of them are perfect, and I like to remind myself of that.

(And The Doctor. From Doctor Who. I'm actually serious.)
posted by Cygnet at 10:50 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mother Teresa

Arrgh, accidentally hit "enter". Meant to add, she was religious, but I don't think it was really about that, for her. It was about helping people.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:51 AM on June 25, 2010

My hero is my dad. He was exactly the wrong type of man (shy, thoughtful, idealistic) for politics, but he fought it all the way to the top and got burned. I've read the speeches he made in the legislature when he was but a boy and marveled at not only the depth, complexity and completeness of his social/political ideas but, even after having been abused by the people he worked so hard to represent, his faith in and love of humanity. To this day, even his enemies acknowledge his creativity, honesty and incorruptibility.

He's not perfect, of course. My life might have been better if he hadn't gone into politics, and the reality of a man in contrast to his public persona is always somewhat disappointing... but I wouldn't trade it for anything. People always ask me why I haven't gone into politics. Aside from the obvious reasons, there's simply no way I could live up to his example. The best I can do is try to follow it day-by-day.

I guess the point is, the heroes you need are probably all around you. The appeal of famous heroes is really their isolation, which protects you from the tawdry details of their humanness. I think of heroism as a fundamental aspect of humanity. Even the "lowest" among us have regular opportunities to make a decision or a sacrifice that makes the world a better place -- even for a moment.
posted by klanawa at 10:54 AM on June 25, 2010

Although I feel that there's another quote floating around with a similar idea, Dorothy Day is quoted as saying

"Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily.”

I think this goes for heroes, too. It's natural to want to set someone on a pedestal and say, this one can do no wrong, but in doing that we create a distance that excuses us from similar efforts. To acknowledge fallibility is to say that this person was struggling with all the same things I struggle with, and yet they still accomplished so much.
posted by redsparkler at 10:56 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Margaret Sanger
Marie Curie
Elizabeth Ann Seton
Isaac Newton
Nikola Tesla
Johannes Kepler
EO Wilson
Chuck Jones

Hell, I'd list Keanu Reeves after reading that thread of awesome anecdotes last week.
posted by elizardbits at 10:58 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Firefly quote that's been sticking with me for a while: "It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another."

No one -- save for Jesus and Mr. Rogers (and the former is debatable) -- is free of sin, or something you personally consider a sin. Anyone you want to emulate, or your kids should emulate, ought to be human and a sinner, a sometime-wrong-doer. We need to know that we are allowed to make mistakes, that it truly is human to err, and that while greatness may come from crawling out of the mud, we may have very well flung ourselves into it in the first place. A hero who is truly pure is impossible to genuinely identify with because we, as human beings, will never go through life sans mistakes, or actions that others consider are mistakes.

My hero is Lex Luthor, who is fictional, a complete bastard, and possibly evil. But those aren't the parts of him I admire. I admire the fact that whatever he puts his mind to, he can accomplish and that his body never holds back his mind from prospering. Sure, he's constantly defeated, but that's only because he goes against the natural order of good in his fictional universe. Which is all the more reason for me to be good.
posted by griphus at 10:59 AM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Lenny Stutnik - Hero of the Potomac

Also Arland D. Williams, Jr. , who repeatedly passed a lifeline to several others when he could have saved himself. It was just incredible. The bridge was eventually named for him.

It was such an awful, awful time. On the same day, Metro had its first fatal accident.

I got Lenny's autograph when he was invited to a presidential event. He was totally unprepared for the attention he got. He was a regular guy, trying to help someone.
I wish Lenny, the surviors, and their families the very best, and may the dead rest in peace.

My younger brother is a volunteer fireman and EMT, and he willingly puts himself in danger to aid others. He spends a lot of time, study, and, yes, money on it. Volunteer first responders are incredible.
posted by jgirl at 11:06 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, based on this thread, I'll nominate Mike Rowe.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:07 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Raoul Wallenberg. Chiune Sugihara.

Socrates was not perfect, but his life was exemplary in many ways.
posted by twirlip at 11:07 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

A person should be judged by the circumstances and context of their world. TR was a great man, and might be judged a racist by todays morals, but by the morals of his time he wasn't, it was a different world then. He was rich, but he didn't pursue a life of leisure, he worked, he fought for his country and his beliefs and he shaped the politics of his day and our day in a positive way. As to his hunting, well a lot of good upstanding people hunt today and most of your ancestors (for millions of years) made a living as a hunter, this is not a moral failure. He established a park system that has become a model for the world and probably prevented several species here in the USA from becoming extinct and his tradition of consvertion is still being spread throughout the world (this might be his best and longest lasting impact). I am not writing this to defend TR(although I am doing that as i view him as someone to emulate) but rather to demonstrate that many of what you view as moral failures are actually understandable flaws that in no way detract from his accomplishments. In a hundred years do you want to be judged by the morals and context of the current world or by the ones in place then. Morals, right and wrong, socially acceptable all change with time and place. Admire people for what the did with what they had, not what you would have done in their place.
posted by bartonlong at 11:12 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it might be useful to distinguish between heroes and good solid people who did good things with their lives.

Martin Luther King Jr. is an obvious hero for his central role in the civil rights movement; whatever adultery he may or may not have committed simply pales in comparison to the magnitude of what he accomplished and inspired. Unless you have a world view that does not allow for even a drop of moral relativism, it's hard to say he's not a hero.

Meryl Streep is a good solid actress; talented, rises above most of the pettiness of her industry, squeaky clean for a professional entertainer. She's made, and continues to make even into her 60s, many good films that many people have enjoyed. I wouldn't call that heroic, but she did find her talent and spent her time and energy developing it and using it to do the best work she could. I can think of worse ways of being.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:12 AM on June 25, 2010

Do your heroes have to be real people? All--or most--of my heroes are fictional and most of them are from books.

A short list: Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings, the Doctor from Doctor Who, Gus and Call from Lonesome Dove, Merlin from the Once and Future King, Sam Vimes from Night Watch, Edward Abbey from Desert Solitaire (pseudo-fictional), Cal from East of Eden, Will Stanton from The Dark is Rising, Harry Crewe from The Blue Sword, Odysseus from the Odyssey.

All of my real-life heroes are musicians or poets:

Beethoven, Dvorak, Johnny Cash, Mississippi John Hurt, Ani DiFranco, William Stafford, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, Garrison Keillor (mainly for his introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times).

My requirement for a hero is usually that they've said something that helps me sort out a problem in my own life, when my own words or imagination fails me and I need to borrow from somebody else.
posted by colfax at 11:13 AM on June 25, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:14 AM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Jackie Chan. The guy almost literally does everything, does it all well, and is apparently a really good human being.
posted by jbickers at 11:16 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mohandas K. Gandhi
Audie Murphy
+1 Mr. Rogers
posted by artlung at 11:18 AM on June 25, 2010

I don't really believe in putting all your hero eggs in one basket, but instead trying to emulate and appreciate certain characteristics from many different heroes. Put together a Hero Frankenstein out of all the parts that you do like, and try to live your life in a way that is as close to Hero Frankenstein as you can be!
posted by srah at 11:31 AM on June 25, 2010

For me, a hero is someone who finds their calling in life, pursues it relentlessly, and in doing so makes a big difference in the world. Along those lines, my heroes include

Frank Zappa
Richard Feynman
Mr. Rogers
Jim Henson
Manute Bol
Jack London

All of these people took their talents, perfected them, and achieved remarkable results. None of them were perfect people (aside from Mr. Rogers). That's not what heroism is about. Heroism is about using what you've got to make the world a better place.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 11:32 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't see how their family's wealth makes someone less worthy of respect, but whatever.

James Bond Stockdale

Mbaye Diagne
posted by BigSky at 11:44 AM on June 25, 2010

Speaking of Roosevelts, check out Eleanor Roosevelt. She was born to privilege, yes, but was also a badass of history when most women had to take a back seat. Civil rights, human rights, women's rights, she was on that train early. She's so interesting to read about.
posted by Askr at 11:52 AM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Joseph Campbell. Not only is his life inspiring to me, but his work has taught me that so many stories (real and imagined) serve to teach me that a human life is a heroic journey regardless of the flaws we may have. I see what he called the "Hero's Journey" everywhere now. Sometimes heroes are heroes to me because they have to overcome their own privilege to do anything meaningful. Sometimes heroes are heroes to me because life has been unfair to them and they've overcome obstacles to do something meaningful. Sometimes a hero must overcome his own natural tendencies to be a dick or a criminal in order to do something meaningful.

I do understand your irritation at those whom our society tends to deem "heroic". More often they are merely talented or impressive in some way, but real chumps in other ways. Campbell defines a hero as one who has given his or her life to something bigger than the self. I think he would take you to task on defining a hero as someone who displays virtue at every turn. My sister doesn't love to eat the way I do. I mean I LOVE it. So, is her ability to forgo the roasted duck or the lardo a virtue? Or is it only a virtue if I forgo it since I'm tempted by it? What appears as virtue in her is maybe just genetics...

As to what to tell your children, Zach Anner, recently on the blue, is a good example. My kids were pretty impressed by him.

I don't know, maybe the best thing I can do for my kids is to show them how to live an authentic life. Although I find Mother Theresa heroic, I can't emulate her life, nor do I want to. To find out who you are and to commit yourself to something that matters more to you than your own material comfort... that's heroic.
posted by madred at 11:55 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

colfax, I'm glad I'm not the only one to list The Doctor as a hero :)
posted by Cygnet at 11:57 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is pretty cliche, but I'd pick Lincoln. Not the clean, sanitized version of Lincoln that most people know, but real ugly truth of him. He was not, by any means, a perfect person that you could point to and say "do everything this man does." He had some pretty major flaws, among them that he was a jerk to his dad and favored shipping black slaves back to Africa as a solution for slavery, but he's a hero to me because he always struggled to do what was right. And I think that knowing he was just a person who screwed up sometimes rather than some infallible leader that makes him someone worth emulating.

For example, he was fiercely ambitious and truly enjoyed the political game, to the point where he made a real ass out of himself when he was involved in state politics. He wanted more than anything to be in the center of the Whig political machine where all the decisions were made. But he really kind of sucked at the whole thing the first time around. When he came back to politics in the 1850s he was still fairly ambitious, but that drive was subordinate to his causes -- keeping the Union together and eliminating slavery. You can still see traces of his former self leak through sometimes, especially in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but he'd learned how to harness an ugly side of himself and use it in service of his mission.

He also struggled with depression his whole life. He tried to kill himself twice and once wrote that he was the "most miserable man living." He was whiny and indecisive in his twenties, shutting himself off from everyone so he could write poetry about suicide and mental illness. He also jerked Mary Todd around a lot before he married her. Not very admirable. But he learned to live with it. He figured out how to not let his "fits of melancholy" ruin his life. Depression doesn't have to be the end of everything.

There's a whole host of other qualities I could go on with. He was self-educated, flirted with atheism in his youth but then developed a complex set of religious beliefs as an adult, is one of the greatest writers and speakers in American history, deeply believed in the Union, etc. But it's most useful to me to know that such a titan of American history was himself pretty messed up. But he was aware of that and tried to fix his flaws rather than just ignoring them. If you want to read more about him, you should look into his early life, before he became president. Lincoln's Melancholy is a great place to start and George McGovern has a good short biography of him.
posted by lilac girl at 11:59 AM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Greg Mortenson, a former mountaineer turned humanitarian, builds schools for children (particularly girls) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is done at great personal risk: he has been kidnapped in tribal regions, escaped firefights between opium warlors, and has endured fatwās by Islamic clerics for educating girls, and hate mail from fellow Americans for educating Muslim children.

Terry Fox was a cross-country runner and cancer research activist. In 1980, he set out to run across Canada- despite having had his leg amputated to cancer three years prior. He died after 143 days and 5,373 kilometers, his cancer spread to his lungs and he was forced to stop. His legacy includes the largest one-day cancer research fundraiser, and social change towards the way disability is viewed.
posted by bdj at 12:04 PM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Barack Obama.
posted by nicwolff at 12:05 PM on June 25, 2010

But he smokes cigarettes!
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:10 PM on June 25, 2010

Mary Seacole.
posted by bettafish at 12:15 PM on June 25, 2010

While I'm pretty much in agreement in a lot of posters here that it's problematic to heroicize the person rather than the act ... I've always been enormously inspired by Nikolai Vavilov. He did remarkable and almost relentlessly careful and exact work in botany and agronomy, assembling the world's largest collection of seeds in Leningrad, studying pests and plant immunities, and trying to improve agricultural yields. So far, so worthy; what makes me weep to read his biography was when he and fellow botanists refused to eat the seeds during the Siege of Leningrad (several starved to death rather than raid the bank); he then refused to agree with Lysenko's pernicious, anti-scientific nonsense and was punished by Stalin as a result. Vavilov, who made notable contributions to feeding huge numbers of people, died of malnutrition in prison in 1943. The Institute of Plant Industry still operates in St. Petersburg. I find something profoundly moving not just in the tragedy of his fate but in the refusal to allow the loss or corruption of knowledge in the face of terrible pressure.

Also, I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned Alan Turing!
posted by finnb at 12:24 PM on June 25, 2010

Pete Seeger
posted by GaelFC at 12:35 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama inspires me on a daily basis.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 12:45 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aristides de Sousa Mendes

He gave up absolutely everything to do what he felt and knew was right. A quote from him:
I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love.
posted by vacapinta at 12:49 PM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Shirley Chisholm.
Bayard Rustin.
Ella Baker.
Gary Francione.
Paul Wellstone.
Molly Ivins.
Van Jones.

A good (albeit by definition geographically specific) place to start: Americans who tell the truth.
posted by Ash3000 at 12:58 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Isabella Bird. Wonderful heroine because she had essentially been given up on by society when she began a radical self transformation. She was sickly as a child, suffering multiple physical ailments. As a woman, she was unmarried and considered a spinster, living in her sister's home. She was by contemporary accounts a quiet and plain woman. She was still sickly, and at the suggestion of a doctor (who said she would likely not live much longer) she traveled to the United States.

Not a typical adventuress (which meant other things in the Victorian era), Bird didn't stop traveling. She published letters and books, climbed mountains, and traveled everywhere from Hawaii to the Rockies to China.

She married at 49, studied medicine in her 50's, and set out to become a medical missionary in India at 60, and traveled with British soldiors carrying only her pistol and medicine chest. At 61, she was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Before her death at age 73, she was planning another trip to China.

Astounding woman, and a wonderful reminder that we don't always have to identify our heros, our dreams, or our "purpose" (to quote Avenue Q) early in life. It is never too late to follow a dream, or embark on a new adventure.
posted by arnicae at 1:00 PM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Desmond Tutu.
posted by Ash3000 at 1:02 PM on June 25, 2010

Stanislav Petrov saved the world back in the '80s.
posted by joedan at 1:05 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

This thread might be of some help.

When I think of heros, I tend to think of martyrs of charity -- folks who give their lives serving others. Like:
St. Maximillan Kolbe -- Arrested by the Gestapo for hiding hundreds of Jews from the Nazis and volunteered to die in the place of another man, who had a wife and children, in the concentration camp.
Fr. Damien -- Moved to the leper colony on Molokai to minster to the needs of the sick there. Lived with them until he too died of lerposy in 1941.
St. Lawrence of Rome -- Executed during the Valerian persecution in the third century. He took pains to make sure the wealth of the church was distributed to the poor before it could be seized. When Valerian demanded he produce the riches of the church, he showed up with poor, blind, and lame people, not jewels and such. Valerian, not amused, had Lawrence slowly roasted on an iron grate. Dude was so badass he joked after a while that he was done on one side and needed to be turned. (That's why he is the patron saint of cooks and chefs, FWIW.)

I also admire greatly those who had wealth but gave it up in order to serve others. Like Saints Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel.

Then there are those who lived, and sometimes lost, their lives speaking truth to power, like Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King.

Or are we staying away from religious examples?
posted by cross_impact at 1:26 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm probably going to get in trouble by mentioning something written by this guy, but I really like this post, and actually have it printed out and stuck on my mirror. People do good things while having flaws. And blind emulation of anyone is never a good idea. We've all got to find our own paths instead of finding someone to follow.

Particularly appropriate bits for this post:

Take your favorite artist, the one you look up to and see as the perfect specimen of talent, values, output, whatever the case may be - and someone else has a reason why they’re not worth even a passing glance. Is “Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back” the documentary of a genius iconoclast or was he a self absorbed pseudo-intellectual bully? It depends on who you ask. Is Jay-Z the reigning king of hip hop or is he “all business” now? It depends on who you ask. I bring up both names because if you ask me, I put them at the top of my list of people who can do very little if no wrong at all, but it won’t take long to read someone’s opposing point of view. If you’re not sure of what you love, that means you can be talked out of it, and that’s a slippery slope.

Nobody’s life template will ever lay evenly over yours. And in those times when they clash completely, you have to walk alone, with confidence that you’re creating your own template, made out of your own instincts and your own dreams and your own goals. And if you do it long enough, maybe someone someday will look to yours as the life to model theirs after. Of course, some people won’t agree with them. It will all depend on who they ask.

posted by jenfullmoon at 1:39 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mother Teresa

Arrgh, accidentally hit "enter". Meant to add, she was religious, but I don't think it was really about that, for her. It was about helping people.

Actually, you are quite wrong about that. It was primarily about saving souls. According to Mother Teresa's worldview, a healthy dose of suffering is good for you because it brings you closer to Jesus. So it's about religion first and helping second.

(Not that she hasn't done immeasurably more good than I will ever do in my lifetime...)
posted by sour cream at 1:43 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd second Greg Mortenson.

Elias Chacour is a Palestinian Christian who's spent much of his life working for reconciliation efforts in Israel and trying to improve Palestinian communities.

I think John Boyd is kindof larger-than-life and interesting in some of the same was that TR is.
posted by weston at 1:52 PM on June 25, 2010

I've been making a list. Some notably excellent people missing from this thread so far:

Aung San Suu Kyi
Mohammed Mossadegh
Leyla Zana
Hồ Chí Minh
Mustafa Abdülcemil Qırımoğlu
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
Ken Saro-Wiwa
Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III
Jaime Sin
Sophie Scholl
Salima Ghezali
Charlie Chaplin
Mikhail Baryshnikov
Michael Ende
Albert Einstein
Anatoly Marchenko
Samantha Smith
Mordechai Vanunu
posted by shii at 2:03 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Jane Jacobs is my hero.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 2:03 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've had to learn to be guarded in who I regard as a hero, because I have high standards for that word. I get to be picky, because they're MY heroes. I don't have many, but it warms my heart to see multiple mentions of Mr. Rogers in the replies. Picking and choosing from my rather short list, I'd put forward Arthur Ashe and Jane Addams.
posted by lemniskate at 2:27 PM on June 25, 2010

Any gay person who proudly lives their life outside of the closet, especially when they do so in a time and/or place that makes it a dangerous, but even more heroic choice.
posted by marsha56 at 2:27 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Óscar Romero
posted by Sara Anne at 2:32 PM on June 25, 2010

My personal heroes and heroines (living, dead, and fictional. Take this this for what you will.

Philip Pullman
Mana (former guitarist of Malice Mizer)
Stephane Lambiel
Bob Black
Emily of New Moon
Yusei Fudo
Ella Milenova
Edward Norton
Fiona Graham (first Western geisha)
posted by Anima Mundi at 2:45 PM on June 25, 2010

Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Barack Obama. Yeah, it's been a tough year.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:46 PM on June 25, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
posted by atchafalaya at 2:50 PM on June 25, 2010

Henry Morgentaler, at least if you're pro-choice.
posted by greatgefilte at 3:10 PM on June 25, 2010

I just saw greatgefilte's recommendation of Morgentaler, and popped back in to second it. The man is single-handedly the reason that abortions are legal in Canada. More than that, he's the reason that women in rural communities have the (limited) access they do.

This book is a bio of him written while he was in jail (I think this is the right book) for performing abortions. It's amazingly powerful.

Oh, did I mention he's also a survivor of the concentration camps?.
posted by Lemurrhea at 3:35 PM on June 25, 2010

Julian Assange.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:46 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I put Jimmy Carter on my list for his post presidency work - his writings, his pursuit of conflict resolution, his issues with the Southern Baptist Convention, etc.

I can point my children to him as someone they could emulate.

(and don't be so hard on Teddy).
posted by Edward L at 4:01 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Someone awesome who does amazing things but has no need of money and has no wrongheaded beliefs or personal foibles...

My friend I think you want a god not a hero.

Have you considered being your own hero? Everyone else will likely disappoint you in some way, at least you can control your own behavior.
posted by Saminal at 4:07 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wait, has nobody mentioned Nelson Mandela yet or did I miss it? He's amazing.
posted by Cygnet at 4:36 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heros rise above their imperfections to greatness anyhow. That doesn't mean that they become perfect. They're only human, and in their humanity they show that we, too, can do heroic things in spite of our smallness and our limitations.

My own hero -- today, tomorrow I might have a different one -- is Dr. Seuss, who brought joy and learning to untold millions of children and adults. He supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. That is a Very Bad Thing, but regardless, the good that he did lives on.

In my own life, I will probably never do anything that will bring me any particular attention. Yet, I try to do good each day, handle responsibilities beyond what I dreamed possible when younger, and maintain an attitude of cheer and grace for myself and those around me. I make the world a better place, for someone.

Yet I, like my own heros, have feet of clay. My recognition and acceptance of their imperfections is one more thing that allows me to recognize and accept my own, and to go forward each day. And this, I think, is a Very Good Thing.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:12 PM on June 25, 2010

George Tiller

posted by Space Kitty at 5:58 PM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Dith Pran

and the man who played him in The Killing Fields,

Dr. Haing S. Ngor
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:09 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agent Dale Cooper
posted by eugenen at 9:45 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
posted by Anything at 2:27 AM on June 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Jacques Cousteau. Briank had a good post about him recently. I think I'd rate him as my all time hero.
posted by Elmore at 3:43 AM on June 26, 2010

Gandhi. Mandela. Some others listed above. You can tell your children they were (or are) great people we should emulate.

But there never was a perfect person. Your children are imperfect. They need imperfect heroes. They need to see how we imperfect people can rise above our imperfections to do good. We can be small and weak and still win a good fight. We can make mistakes without giving up. We can still be good and valuable people even when we do something wrong if we accept our responsibility for the error and try to make amends. We can do great things and dumb things at the same time.
posted by pracowity at 5:45 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nelson Mandela, the Mother Teresa, Randy Pausch, Fred Rogers.
posted by talldean at 6:34 AM on June 26, 2010

How about The Buddha?
posted by thaths at 7:49 AM on June 26, 2010

After you find the perfect flawless no warts human you can begin your quest for a perpetual motion machine. Sorry Cool Papa Bell, but I'm sure even Mr. Rogers forgot to put the toilet seat back down on occasion. Yin and yang.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:33 AM on June 26, 2010

Seconding Jane Addams.
posted by Hop123 at 10:53 AM on June 26, 2010

"It was primarily about saving souls. According to Mother Teresa's worldview, a healthy dose of suffering is good for you because it brings you closer to Jesus. So it's about religion first and helping second."

Two misconceptions: Suffering for suffering's sake is asceticism which would have been heretical to Mother Theresa. To her, suffering for the sake of helping others brings you closer to Jesus. That and there really was no difference between helping people and saving souls to Mother Theresa. Read Matthew chapter 25 where Jesus lays down the test for salvation -- feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc. are the criteria for entering heaven.

What I admire most about her is that she stuck with her faith and her life of charity when she went through her terrible periods of doubt and despair. Even at the point where she despaired of believing in God at all, she persevered in her ministries of service and even her prayer life. That's the strongest kind of faith, that which moves you forward even when you are not feeling it. She's one my heroes too.
posted by cross_impact at 11:12 AM on June 26, 2010

Stephen Colbert.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:19 PM on June 26, 2010

Ooh! Bill Nye!

Jackie Chan is a good one.

You probably won't agree, given your criteria, but Neil Young is a hero of mine mostly because of his flaws.
posted by cmoj at 2:29 PM on June 26, 2010

Robert Aylmer Fisher. Total asshole, smoking apologist, racist, eugenicist, and absolutely brilliant mathematician who single-handedly created much of what passes for statistics, along with his arch-nemesis Karl Pearson.

If you can handle Fisher's character flaws and still recognize his singular brilliance, then you will have grown to the point where you can appreciate the difference between perfection and heroic effort. Right now you sound like a little kid who wants a god on a pedestal. Trouble is, they always fall off. Everyone has flaws and shortcomings, and the people who are actually worthy of study and emulation seem to have more than most.
posted by apathy at 4:18 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Accept that even heroes are real people, with failings.

Get over your need for them to be perfect.

Continue idolizing Teddy, or whomever else inspires you as a greater-than-life persona. Because they can be, even while being human.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:20 PM on June 27, 2010

I'd agree with Edward L about Jimmy Carter.

I should also add one of my more local heroes (OK, he lived across the state but he still lived in the state!): Paul Newman. I always think of him as being very talented and very classy, and the charitable work he did by establishing Newman's Own and the Hole in the Wall Gang camps is HUGE. I was sorry he didn't ever run for public office.
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:38 AM on June 28, 2010

Wait, has nobody mentioned Nelson Mandela yet or did I miss it?

You did miss it -- you're the third person to mention him.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:50 AM on June 28, 2010

Oskar Schindler. A womanizer, adulterer, drunkard, black market racketeer, gambler, and a Nazi. His life was a general disaster before WWII and after. But he made a difference.
posted by jasonhong at 9:42 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Old thread, but I found I quote today that reminded me and seemed very apropos:

It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong
man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit
belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by
dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short
again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who, at the best, knows in the end
the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, at least fails while
daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who
know neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt
posted by dubitable at 7:44 AM on July 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

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