Where have all our heroes gone?

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
March 1st, 2017

If ever we needed heroes, the time is now. Every day, the morning paper brings news of drastic actions taken by President Trump and widespread public demonstrations of outrage and solidarity with those he maligns or endangers with his policies of exclusion.

Building a wall between us and Mexico, closing our borders to refugees and immigrants and acting to endanger the prospects for universal health insurance repudiate the values that have always made America great. Never mind making America great again.

In 1630, when John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill,” watched by the world, he set a standard of governance for the new colony and the future nation.

It is the same standard that President Kennedy invoked in his 1961 inaugural address and President Reagan described on the eve of his election in 1980 and in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989.

In that parting message, Reagan described his vision for our country as a city, “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

People of all kinds living in harmony and no walls. We’re a long way from that ideal, but what’s even worse is the decline in the level of civic discourse and simple human decency modeled by our new president.

We should expect more from our leaders than mocking people with physical challenges, ridiculing those who disagree with them and using words to threaten rather than to inspire and persuade.

As I write these words in early February, training directors are submitting their rank order lists of applicants to APA internships throughout the United States and Canada. At the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, we had more than 100 applicants for four positions and most of them had what it takes to make excellent interns.

Almost any four could have done the job well and the process of selection is always agonizing. We look at all the traditional markers of accomplishment and something more. The ability to collaborate, to treat others with respect, to offer ideas with confidence and humility, to ask for help, to listen and to laugh with others and not at them – these are some of the traits we expect and find in all of our applicants.

When it comes to selecting interns, character counts. Why should we expect anything less from the person we choose to be president?

I actually expect a good deal more. I want my president to be a hero. The public face of my country should show the world the very best of our ideals as a nation and exemplify a striving to uphold the very highest intellectual, emotional and moral standards of which we humans are capable. I am not looking for perfection. Time has uncovered cracks in the towers of John Kennedy’s Camelot. Renaissance man, Jimmy Carter, despite all he has accomplished as a private citizen, has been criticized as an ineffectual president and some are already draping Barack Obama with the same mantle of political impotence.

I am not looking for perfection but I am looking for a president who, in the words of Lincoln, is there to remind us of “the better angels of our nature.” What we do with that reminder is up to us. In its absence, we need to find other heroes who, by their words, actions, and example, support our own noble ideals and aspirations.

Psychologists know a thing or two about heroes. In primitive archetypes and in real life, heroes supply the material for what Freud called our ego ideals, the part of us that holds the image of what we aspire to be at our best. Otto Kernberg, the father of self-psychology, postulated that the ego ideal develops in our earliest relationships with parents or substitute figures who serve as idealized self-objects or models of perfection that we internalize and use to fuel our striving and ambition.

While the ego ideal emerges in early childhood, we never stop looking for heroes and, if we don’t find them in our families, we look elsewhere.

In these troubled times for our nation and the world, it would be reassuring to find a hero in the White House. Millions of Americans obviously do. Yet the rest of us don’t have to look very far for models of the ideals we cherish or the encouragement we need.

They are there in the people who have touched our lives with their knowledge, wisdom, affection and good example. They are our elders, our peers and the younger generation that follows in our footsteps. There is no age test for heroism. Nor do we need all the qualities we admire to reside in a single person. You can find heroic traits almost anywhere if you take the time to look and appreciate the people around you. Heroes are real people who have shaped our lives and historic figures who have inspired the world. They live with us and within us. They are the human equivalent of John Winthrop’s city on a hill and, like that fabled city, they are worth watching.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

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