between zero and hero: mere men

“As you get older you will learn that loyalty is a virtue too important to be lavished on individual personalities.”

(From That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis).

When I was a child, back in the eighties, my friends and I used to play this hero or superman game. We would identify with some action figure we considered super-dooper and, well, “fight” each other. Or at least we would mimic a fight from an action movie we secretly watched behind our parents back. Most of us were allowed to watch some violence in cartoons, but weren’t allowed to see the real deal – or so we thought… So Rambo and Rocky were out of the question. This prohibition only added to the mystique of these films and ignited our desire to watch them at all costs. It also made the movie characters larger than life, still, if that was even possible.

I remember that we weren’t quite fully aware of the fictitious nature of most heroes. So Sylvester Stallone was different from Rambo and Rocky, as Arnold Schwarzenegger differed from, say, Conan the BarbarianMr. T and B.A. Baracus likewise might have had the same look, but were not to be mistaken for each other. Besides, for some strange reason still unknown to us, we could watch the A-Team. Other cardboard characters in our “realm of the gods” were real cartoon (hmm, “real cartoon”) characters like He-Man or G.I. Joe. And Bruce Lee was the ultimate legend, of course.

It was a simpler world then, for me and my friends. There were good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. The Cold War hadn’t quite finished, and as children from Europe’s West we would team up with the valiant knights of the USA against the evil empire of the USSR. For instance, together with Rocky we would fight the Russian monstrous man-machine Drago in Rocky IV. Or we would cheer Rambo to outsmart the Soviets with aid of the Taliban in Rambo III (imagine that – how policies change according to newly found “common enemies”!). We had yet to learn that “the Russians love their children too”, although Sting already sang this as far back as 1985.

Growing up, I learned that the battle between good and evil is not really a battle of “us” (the good guys) versus “them” (the bad guys), but should actually be located in the individual.The battle of the handsome He-Man versus the atrocious Skeletor became understandable as a metaphor for an inner struggle in every man’s heart or soul. After all, “we all have our demons to fight”, don’t we? Freudian psycho-analysis would call this battle the source of an ever fragile equilibrium the Ich has to maintain between Es and Über-Ich.

All of a sudden, the world wasn’t that simple anymore. We couldn’t just locate evil outside of ourselves anymore and banish it, like some scapegoat in the desert. Moreover, the heroes we identified with as children turned out to posses some bad character traits as well. It all boils down to your point of view. I once read a testimony from a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust wherein she states that the most scandalous experience she had back then, was the realization that her tormentor was a human being, just like herself – after seeing him in a gentle mood with his family. Or, to put things slightly different, Superman only appears beneficial among his own kin. From the perspective of his opponents and victims, he is the devil. So to follow some kind of Superman in all circumstances – even if it’s the Superman you imagine yourself to be – is a shady affair. You could become a monster in trying to turn yourself into a hero…

“Yesterday he was a god; today he is a devil; tomorrow he’ll be a man again; that’s all.”

(From The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope).

The challenge that arises from this identity crisis is to accept that you yourself and the people you look up to are not the noble heroes you imagined, nor is your opponent or enemy the monster you always thought. Mercy and forgiveness can only come from this kind of acceptance, from the realization that it is okay to be “mere men”. For the longest time humanity has convinced itself that people should strife for perfection no matter what, that people should resemble some godly ideal.

The ancient Greek philosophers basically defended the idea that it’s nature’s law that “man becomes god.” Christianity tells the shocking story that “God becomes man.” Meaning that it’s not even necessary to participate in a battle between “angels and demons” to sustain some sense of identity. Beyond psycho-analytical identity constructions, you are loved just the same. The paradoxical miracle of accepting yourself as “not being a hero”, is that you can truly become a saving grace for others. For it is when we keep on believing the illusion that we can somehow heroically protect ourselves and our own from all harm and that “evil does not happen but far from our quarters”, that we remain blind for the evil that happens on our very doorstep.

When pedophilia scandals came to light in the Catholic Church of Belgium as well, following reports from child abuse by churchmen from around the world and with the infamous case of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe serving as a trigger, one of my colleagues was scandalized because I claimed that we all bear some sort of responsibility in these cases. Let’s face it, when push comes to shove, we often do have the tendency to look the other way and to let others – you know, “professionals” – deal with “sensitive cases”. But even psychiatrists and health care workers, it seems, aren’t to be trusted. The Netherlands were recently shocked by Rieke Samson’s report on child abuse in youth care. And in Belgium there was psychiatrist Walter Vandereycken’s case. He allegedly abused some of his adult female patients.

It’s very easy to express disgust for criminals and wrongdoers, and to feel some relief for “not being part of the corrupt group” that let them have their way. But I think, considering the spread of child abuse cases, that the Gospel is right for revealing the painful truth that we are all, more often than not, like the apostle Peter whose loyalty is refuted by Jesus (Matthew 26:34): “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Indeed, when Jesus becomes a victim of the authorities, Peter looks the other way in order to keep himself from getting contaminated with the troubles of his friend.

So it comes as no surprise then that it was easier for the BBC to run a documentary about child abuse in the Catholic Church (The Shame of the Catholic Church), than to give green light for a documentary about the systematic child abuse of one of its celebrity TV-personalities, the late Jimmy Savile. It’s all too human, sadly. But evil is and can be everywhere, also in our own quarters. We might be tempted again to exorcize that evil and restore our sense of identity by “sending a scapegoat into the desert” or by executing large scale witch hunts, but that won’t heal the damage done. It will only increase people’s solicitude to be “on the right side of the line” between good and evil. It will create further mistrust between people and complicate relationships, especially between educators and children. Educators might start to promote a culture of distance between themselves and children, which will again allow malicious minds to gain an aura of inaccessibility and power – and the problem of child abuse might continue by the very measures that tried to avoid it.

As long as we are more preoccupied to safeguard our own “goodness” by blaming each other for all the “badness”, we won’t be able to help any one victim.

To give up on an easy manicheistic duality between good and evil is very difficult. Make no mistake, many of the people who were on Lance Armstrong’s side when he provided the Tour de France with himself as a new legend in cycling publicly loathe him now. He’s gained money for lots of people, and we just love heroic athletes. But ever since he was revealed as a cheat, we’re on the search for new, “real” heroes. And the vicious circle goes on, for no mere man is capable of being that legendary. Maybe he’ll be remembered more positively when he passes away as a tragic old man and long forgotten sports hero. It’s what happened to Michael Jackson and so many other celebrities. Before he died, the general public didn’t care about Jackson’s music anymore, focusing instead on allegations of child abuse and other scandals Jackson was involved in. Dead, he again became the attractive idol he once was. René Girard’s mimetic theory explains parts of our awe for (and idolization of) the dead from deeply embedded and culturally transmitted experiences surrounding victims of mob violence, whose death formerly brought peace and unity to communities.

Mimetic mechanisms time and again trick us into participating in the creation of “heroes” and “monsters” (who are often our former heroes). We constitute the crowd that applauds the emperor’s new clothes, until a child tells us that he really has no clothes. And then Lance walks on, proud as we have taught him to be, and we, doing everything not to lose face, convince ourselves that we somehow knew or didn’t know (depending on our position) of his deception all along…

One can only pray that people like football coach Jerry Sandusky, who abused several boys, are also taken care of by relatives. Else fallen heroes mainly serve as markers to identify and to judge what and who is “good” and what and who is “bad”. To forget that our “heroes” or “zeros” are mostly “mere men”, is to forget our own humanity. It means that we will imitate the crowd that claims to be “righteous”. It means that we will identify with the hero we imagine ourselves to be to destroy “the bad guys” outside ourselves. It means that we will unwittingly become monsters ourselves, equal to the monster we were trying to destroy – its double. Shouldn’t we be preoccupied with Sandusky’s victims instead of Sandusky himself? To listen to the voice of the Victim in our midst, instead of the thousands of godly heroes in our head that put “us” against “them”, well… that’ll be the day…

For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” aren’t you fleshly? […] Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

(1 Corinthians 3:3-4 & 3:21-23).