Holding Out for a Hero At the End of the Night: Why Our Knights in Shining Armor Never Arrive

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn
And I dream of what I need
I need a hero 
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life!
Larger than life
When our discourse has been reduced to bumper sticker morality, our political philosophy is defined by cable news sound bytes, and our understanding of good and evil has all the complexity of a Disney movie, it is no wonder that the kind of people we admire and the kind of people we despise come across as two-dimensional archetypes rather than complex human beings of flesh-and-blood.
Having just read an article about how pop culture seems to be obsessed with battles of good and evil, with the good guys being all-forgiving of anyone who is willing to join the cause, and the bad guys being exclusive and punitive – in stark contrast to ancient epics and folk tales, where there were no such clear cut distinctions, and at times, no clear moral lessons either – I now see that much as we may explain this ethos by a focus on creating a stable, accepting society, the reason for this obsession may be much easier to explain. The West has evolved into a gathering of cultures obsessed with straight-forward simplicity and “happy endings”, where each character gets his “just desserts”, and where moral struggles have clear cut answers, which are rewarded or punished depending on the choices made. Redemption is likewise idealized and put into a little box; grace is a quality taken for granted; the good guys are allowed to make mistakes, but must retain qualities that make them identifiably “good” and in line with common Western tropes, and sentimentally appealing to the general public.
The result of generations of people who have grown up being spoonfed ideas of what it means to be “good” is a mindset with a set of expectations that frequently defy reality and impose impossible standards on any potential real life “heroes” which results in a backlash of a free-for-all, where, so long as the “hero” appears to meet the defined fantasy, all his shortcomings are forgiven. If he strays, however, from the defined parameters, than no matter what boons he brings, he is villified and rejected. The same unrealistic, fluid, and generic standards that we, as our society, have imposed on our literary creations with equal gusto and idealism mixed with casual cruelty is likewise applied to our would-be significant others, friends, jobs, political leaders, and anyone who is expected to play a central definable role in our lives.
The 2016 election was filled with messianic fervor, a tradition that has been accumulating for at least two administrations, if not three. The branding of a number of the candidates focused on their supposed ability to save society from all ills; some have developed cult followings based on the sheer populist demagoguery of their appeal, others were seen as bulwark against lethal social threats that would otherwise destroy our very social fabric. As a result, a variety of candidates were disqualified by the voters for the simple reason of having human imperfections.
Both personal shortcomings and supposed abilities to “save” the voters from themselves and preexisting problems were amplified by the social media and overall chaos to the point that every player was reduced to the caricature, upon whom the general public, along with lobbyists, and friends and foes of this or that figure, projected their fantasies. A state of general hysteria continued through the entire election, as if the world would end if this or that candidate would or would not be elected. As we now see, the republic survives, but the dichotomy of unreasonable expectations and fantastical projections continues, even as, ironically, political leaders increasingly and publicly focus on their own personal benefits to the detriment of their duties.
When leadership becomes more about the fulfillment of fantasies and placating particular emotional needs than about a sense of duty we are left with occasional or even frequent successes which nevertheless pave the road to disaster. At the same time, if we reject every person who fails to rise to the standard of leadership dictated by comic books and adventure novels, we will inevitably end up with the type of leader we deserve – a clever superficial manipulator who will entrap us with our own ideals. However, elections are just one example of misplaced immature ideals. We seem to expect “larger than life” qualities in just about anyone we meet, or else we are disillusioned and move on quickly to the next best thing. The search for the “knights in shining armor” in the news, in our bosses, in our spouses, our helicoptered children, police officers, movie stars, and social influencers never ends. Of course, by definition, not everyone can be larger than life. It’s like inflation. Standards can move upwards, but inevitably only a few people will be the outliers that stand out. We want “the full package”, we feel we deserve it, we want it without delay, and we want it to work out perfectly.
Human frailty, the beauty of struggle with one’s own imperfections, and the drama of human foibles standing in the way of victory are left in the dust of the benign tasteless vegetarianism of photoshopped feats du jour.  By wanting the unattainable, we of course, ironically bring to ruin any positive development. We undercut our own heroes before they have a chance to blossom into anyone worth supporting. Domestic affairs in the US are but one example, but our rose-colored glasses are on with respect to the rest of the world at least as much. One example would be the generally negative (rather than merely skeptical) attitude I have seen from most of the “informed” people with regards to the modest reforms going on in the Arab/Muslim world, from Egypt and the Maghreb to the Gulf States.
One would think that any reforms, however limited, would be welcomed as a matter of common sense, any step towards making life better for the people living in the countries, and developing better relationships with the US or others would bring about commensurate praise. In reality, however, both the substantive changes and the leaders of these countries have aroused at least as much resentment and criticism of those reforms as they have garnered support as a result. One can understand the attacks on their actual weaknesses; however, interestingly enough whatever positive things emerging from those places have received at least as much backlash for the following, at first glance, unfathomable reasons:
* These changes are insufficient, and therefore it’s as if they didn’t happen at all.
* These changes are insincere and deceptive
* These changes do not help us directly, therefore why should we care?
* We cannot be satisfied with THESE changes, until those other (usually some onerous and long-term) changes have taken places.
* We don’t like the people making those changes.
* No matter what changes are actually made, we will never trust the people making them, the societies being affected them, or anything they do. They are inherently evil.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is a phrase that seems to have been created for just such occasions. No one is perfect, least of all Middle East dictators or illiberal societies.  That said, the beauty of the struggle is most evident in those who are actually struggling, as opposed to those who are already close to the pinnacle of their own definition of success in social, political, and economic sense. People who have largely made it spend most of their time squabbling over petty nonsense rather than dealing with existential issues, a mistake in the execution of any of which could have devastating results. The larger than life heroism lies not in the perfection of those rising to the occasion (or being forced to deal with the expectation of greatness suddenly thrust upon them), but in the nature of the struggle. It is what is done in the face of the seemingly insurmountable odds that ultimately creates the measure of individuals or societies, as for the intentions, not only are they almost always inextricably tied to one another and nearly impossible to separate but they tend to change over time as the struggling parties mature and are faced with the rising changes in circumstances.
One of the wisest and most paradigm-shifting comments was made to me during the course of the campaign in 2016. “Everyone wants to  be with the winner, but no one wants to make a winner”.  It’s easy to join on the bandwagon of someone who has achieved success through whatever means. It’s harder to stand by and lend support when the end is nowhere in sight, and it’s not clear what turn the path will take.  Creating “:winners”, is a little like creating heroes. They don’t come from ether. Success is a by product of a great deal of effort, circumstances, often beyond any individual person’s direct control, and those who were willing to invest into helping in one form or another. Even larger than life heroes are not operating in a vacuum, and any good tale shows supportive sidekicks, fairy godmothers, mentor figures, advisers, or simply good folk from the village rooting from the humble person who becomes larger than life as a result of his journey though he may not have precisely the hero material as we see it at the outstart.
No one is born a hero. People become heroes as the result of their actions. Some struggles have more significant social consequences than others. Generals fighting wars, heads of state leading their nations, or brilliant scientists looking for solutions to mind-boggling questions deal with  large scale operations that could be easily considered larger than life due to their potentially mass effect and importance. But then we also have everyday heroes, regular people who never in their lives find themselves caught up in any dramatic undertakings, and yet are faces having to battle personal or circumstantial crises, for which they have no equipment other than their will, attitude, and character. We have no shortage of stories praising and admiring such people… yet increasingly, we look to celebrities and superficial success stories for inspiration, rather to people who have overcome real hardships in a more profound way.
All of that is to say that in Disney movies, the heroes are tall, dark, and handsome, the songs are delightful, everyone is pleasant, and whatever hubris, or ill temper, or stubborness one possess falls away under the charms of the appropriate counterpart or as a result of a journey with just enough doze of danger. In real life,  heroes do not glisten but on the contrary are covered in mud, blood, sweat, and tears as a result of their tribulations. Their trials and journeys may be so painful and exhausting that the heroic quality of their actions during that time may be unnoticeable under the patina of loss, acrimony, uncertainty, and confusion. Real heroes wander, and fail, perhaps may times before they succeed. Rising above one’s limitations to achieve some significant revelation requires breaking one’s boundaries and one’s own glass ceilings, while frequently cutting oneself on glass.  Also heroes may or may not be leaders. Their lonely but meaningful struggles may never affect many people or become known to the world.  They may not be commanding armies or corporations or governments or leading movements. And to whatever extent they take risks or sacrifices, we may never know their extent or even the fact that they are happening. So anyone out there could be a hero without the rest of us being ever the wiser.
And what have done to make heroism possible? We put certain qualities on the pedestal: risk taking, triumphing over trying odds, grand gestures, groundbreaking accomplishments, and decisive measures when a great deal is at stake.  But the constant berating of anyone even appearing to have less than a perfect path, or who may have failed once or twice before reaching the Everest is soul crushing and done enough times to enough people who have seen enough defeats may actually kill their potential for heroism. We are dismissive, angrily so, for anyone who is a disappointment, who is not “enough” according to our standard. And often, no one is ever enough because we value what we see, rather than what actually is. For that reason, our nights are long and lonely, and may never end, and our knights on fiery steeds may never arrive at all.  Even if they did, we wouldn’t recognize them. We’d be expecting something else, someone else, someone not quite so tired, or whose horse would not be covered in sweat from the long ride. We don’t just want our heroes, we want our heroes pristine, untouched, unviolated; we want to be able to show them off. We are never there when they need us:  it’s their job to be heroes, after all. And at the end, when they no longer need us, we ask ourselves: “Why have they set off on another journey and never even dropped us a line”?
We forget that even an ordinary man can become Hercules with the right challenge and at the right time.
And any Hercules can fall, if wounded or degraded.
We look for the wrong heroes, we look for the wrong things in heroes, we look for the heroes everywhere except where they actually are, and then we are surprised when we are left with nothing… nothing, but disappointment.
About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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