One of the benefits of getting older is that one no longer feels the same need to have heroes in life. While it’s not a universal phenomenon, the move away from needing someone to look up to often falls away like so many strands of hair, leaving behind the bald truth that anytime we look up to someone else we have belittled ourselves in some way. This also helps protect us from the inevitable disappointment when our idols eventually fall from grace.
It makes sense that when we are younger we quiet literally look up to others who are bigger, smarter, stronger, and capable of great feats of courage or physical displays. It helps to make the world a little less scary. As we grow older, however, hero worship takes on the star-struck quality of desperately needing to believe that there are those who rise above us mere mortals either in deed or virtue. The need here is not as easy to pin down; my best guess is that it helps to restore our faith in humanity. It appears that one good hero can counter the effects of hordes of miscreants, malcontents, and good old fashioned mean people.
There are some who also hold the cynical belief that our culture likes to put certain people on pedestals simply to either knock them down or delight when the natural force of gravity takes over and sends them crashing back to the ground. Thus, the rise and fall of our heroes takes on the predictable rhythm of waves breaking on the shore, with each new idol exposing him or herself as suffering from the illness that effects all of us; that of being human.
If we allow the aging process to truly make us wise, to learn from our experiences rather than just repeat them, there comes a time when the need for heroes is abandoned. This comes, not in the form of resignation that “There are no heroes, so why bother,” but a realization that the real heroes are those who live their lives to the best of their abilities, whose traits are not super-human, but extraordinarily humane.
As idol worship falls away so does schadenfreude, that strange delight in watching others stumble over themselves. Minus the need to place people on precarious perches of “better than me,” we no longer suffer the heart-ache when they turn out to be just like the rest of us whose lives swing between comedy and tragedy.
Ultimately, the answer to the question, “When will our heroes stop disappointing us?” is, “When we stop needing heroes.”