I think that it is important to make a distinction between some heroic figures that we value and the role models that have impacted our lives. What are the characteristics that differentiate heroes from people who have acted as role models for us? How do heroes and role models affect our behavior and the way we relate to the world?

People tend to idealize their heroes and believe that heroes live in a world of perfection. I recall the candlelight vigils and the mourning that marked the death of singer John Lennon in 1980. Often people have an uncanny capacity to lose themselves in the process of honoring their beloved heroes. Some of us become an extension of the heroic figures that we embrace such as rock stars and sports icons.

Idealizing Our Heroes

As adults, we may pass this phenomenon of hero adoration down to our children. Several years ago, a congressional committee heard testimony from a representation of our major league stars. Some congressional committee members actually “lost themselves,” displaying a sense of wonder and awe, commending the players for their contribution to elevating the game to a level of excellence. We all know the rest of the sordid story.

On a positive note, I recall introducing my son to an old time hall-of-fame star named Bob Feller. Bob was a flame-throwing pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who many consider to be the greatest baseball pitcher in the history of the game. Bob spent an hour talking with me and my baseball-adoring son. Without hesitation, he autographed anything we wanted, free of charge. There are not many Bob Feller’s in this world; so many heroes are doomed to disappoint us.

Why should anyone care whether Barry Bond’s broke the legendary Hank Aaron’s home run record? Nevertheless, we have a fascination with heroes’ status and behavior. For many, it doesn’t make a difference whether Michael Jackson was a suspected child molester since he is still revered by millions of fans throughout the world.

We are enthralled with our heroes. We care little about what Martin Luther King called the “content of one’s character.” Regardless of our hero’s behavior and integrity, we often become enamored with their power and status and allow ourselves to become an extension of their values, behavior and beliefs. In our rush to embrace our heroes, we idealize them, ignoring their humanity. We don’t want to see them as real people because it diminishes the significance of their importance to our lives. Many of us lack a clear vision for our lives, and heroes serve the purpose of filling a personal void. We believe that our heroes are more important and deserving than we are. One prominent basketball player told his young admirers, “I am not your hero kids; if you want a role-model go home and talk with your parents.”

Role Models & Their Far-Reaching, Personal Impact

Role models are significantly different from heroes. Role models are the people who come into our lives in a connecting manner and enrich our experience. They give us advice, teach, coach, encourage, support and protect those of us within their sphere of influence. They are the parents, friends, neighbors, and the brave men and women of the military whose service we honor and cherish. They represent our “acts of grace.”

When I was a child, I was fortunate to have a family who acted as a role model for me. Since I was friends with their son, these parents would invite me over every Saturday to play and to eat lunch with their family. Then, during the summer they would take me on a weeklong vacation to their summer get-away near the shores of Lake Michigan. They were kind, considerate and supportive. I needed them in my life. When many of us are unable to create a sense of family within our own home, we need to look elsewhere to fill the void.

We all need mentors and I was fortunate to have a family who saw my need and acted as a role model for me. Role models are intimately interested in our spiritual and psychological well-being. When we feel vulnerable, role models assist us in building confidence and character. They elevate us rather than diminish us.

As adults, we may have role models who meet our needs in a way that encourages and support us in unique ways. A parent, friend, relative, or acquaintance may serve us by helping provide meaning and purpose for our lives. This is what experiencing a sense of community is about.

Role models will rarely let us down, but heroes often do. Role models always elevate us, whereas hero worship may lead us to diminish our value. Role models are intimately connected to our experience, whereas heroes may serve as vicarious, illusionary images. We accept our role models with all of their frailties, whereas heroes are placed on a pedestal. Role models fulfill our needs, whereas heroes may be a disappointment when they fall from grace. Role models are not an extension of who we are, whereas heroes may be tied to an illusion that we have about reality. You rarely hear about role models, but heroes receive an inordinate degree of attention whether they deserve it or not. It is time as a culture that we salute the role models and the purpose that they serve within our lives and our community.

Author's Bio: 

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC is an author, freelance writer and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. James is the featured Shrink Rap columnist for TheImproper.com, an upscale arts, entertainment and lifestyle web magazine. He has contracted with New Horizon Press to publish his latest work entitled, Troubled Childhood, Triumphant Life. This book is about the impact of “unavailable” parenting on adults and the people they become. James can be reached at www.krehbielcounseling.com.