Reintroducing heroes

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Sri Lanka stands at a crushing stage of disappointment. What looked like bright rays of a revolution which brought some form of change, have disappeared. In typical Sri Lankan style, the blame-game has started. Despite solid, tested-but-failed records, in the name of change we have embraced worse but known devils. Heroes are blamed, arrested, interrogated, accused and even punished. Even in the eyes of the public, the ‘told-you-so’ echo is dominant. The worthy have gone from hero to zero, while ‘cardboard heroes’ have risen. More than anything else, the very rejuvenating flame of hope is extinguished forever. In the present context can Sri Lanka ever have hopes on real ‘heroes?’ Prior to the revolution, a majority merely hero-worshipped the most two-faced, corrupt politicians and it is doubtful whether ‘heroism’ makes sense to us. What is our definition of a hero? Do we know what it means to be heroic?

Scott La Barge from the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University writes why heroes are important. Even though the term ‘hero’ comes from the ancient Greeks, their concept of a hero is something we can relate to. “A hero was a mortal who had done something so far beyond the normal scope of human experience that he left an immortal memory behind him when he died and thus received worship like that due the Gods.” Our history definitely agrees with this definition but we no longer stick to that god-like heroism. Our heroism has long been humanised. Yet, thinking of the Lankan context, from being a country that could boast of ‘heroes’ we have fallen to a level where common decency itself has become an act of heroism. From kings and leaders who nourished our beliefs and faith in heroism, we have stooped to a new low of human beings. Instead, we find our heroism on marvel movies. We are satisfied looking at an onscreen superpower of a saviour. What happened to our heroes and heroism?

Nobody to look up to

 Dr. Yasira Doluweera, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Base Hospital Dambadeniya clearly said that children do not have anyone to look up to, even on a national level. A hero is usually someone who comes outside the family. “The good things of this country have been hijacked by different people to support their own far-from -lean agendas. Be it something manipulative about Ravana or the other, we come up with some figure. Our culture and history have tremendous scope but of late, what have we used them for?” he asked. Dr. Doluweera wants to look at the core value of the story or the characters. “Take our heroes from history and highlight the right thing.

If we admire King Dutugemunu, what should our focus be? It is not the fact that he defeated king Elara. But why he did so or how even the defeated enemy was given his due regard should be our focus. It is keeping this in mind that we have to look into our heroes. Similarly, Madduma Bandara or whoever it is, what values we focus on is the most important aspect.” Dr. Doluweera added that we do have Marvel Movies and heroes the present day youngsters are crazy for. But if we can produce and present a movie of good aesthetic qualities, there is little doubt that children would love it.

On a personal level, referring to his experiences in Australia, Dr. Doluweera addressed our attitudinal problems. “Here, one has to advice the parents. Our work ethics, politicisation of every aspect are deeply problematic. But that does not mean we have to ignore our history. We may not like the Government we may not appreciate what most of our people do. Still, we have to remember to go to our roots. We have to preserve our identity. When you go abroad you understand how you can hardly ever be a part of that culture. We will speak in English or whatever that language is and absorb the culture. But that does not mean this absorbing should destroy what we have within us.”

Unfortunately, all we do is boast. Out of everything which is precious, we will choose the absolute irrelevant fact and highlight it. It is because of this that we have been fed up of the slogan ‘2500 years of civilisation’ or the constant boasting of Sri Lanka being the best. He pointed out if we are Buddhists, we would not be doing such cheap and hollow things. “History or these facts are not there to either put someone down or to glorify some political ideology. When such things are done people get fed up with culture, civilisation or religion.”

Dr. Doluweera said that we have to teach our children that not everybody is bad or wrong. “We must emphasise that there are straightforward, honest people who follow their good policies. These ordinary people can actually be our heroes. Imagine someone with great work ethics who is hardworking and honest. That person can be our hero. If we see a hardworking traffic policeman who is doing a great job, he can actually be our hero.” These kind of attitudes are prevalent in other countries. Dr. Doluwera recalled how one Australian child said he wants to become a postman. “There was another child who wanted to become a dog-groomer. There is no embarrassment associated with such jobs in those countries,” he said. 

Even if you check YouTube you would see parents taking their children to shake hands and thank garbage and litter collectors who come to their homes. But mind you, these people are very professional, properly dressed in overalls and helmets, with the needed equipment and gloves with no questionable hygiene. Furthermore, they are well behaved. In terms of such behaviour on both sides, it is unthinkable when we might reach that sort of mentality and conduct.

You too can be a hero

Dr. Doluweera said the struggle is to let our children not be affected by the stress and tension we get from every possible angle. “We must give them the message that even if things are really bad and hard, that is alright. You can always be a little hero in facing these with courage. You do not have to lay down your life like Madduma Bandara. But if you can help another child who is feeling hopeless in this situation, you too can be a little hero.”

However, it is harder to detach the concept of heroism from morality. Heroes are those we admire and aspire to emulate. Nevertheless, the concept of a ‘hero’ retains the original link. Hence, our ideals are defined by those whom we choose as heroes. Their qualities and ambitions become symbols to what we want to possess. In a nation severely deprived of ideals, there is a dire need for heroes. However, no two people will choose the same. That is why sociologists highlight the importance of shaping our choices. Globally, this is taken as a ‘perennial moral issue’. Ideals to which we aspire largely determine our behaviour. With vested individual interests the choice of heroes is crucial.

Personal Hero

In a recent American poll, the administrators of the Barron Prize for Young Heroes came up with interesting findings. Only half of American teenagers could name a personal hero. Instead, Superman and Spiderman were named twice as often as Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Lincoln. This is why the term ‘personal hero’ is crucial. While the blame goes to media for confusing ‘celebrity’ with ‘excellence’, from the students who answered, more than half had named an athlete, a movie star or a musician. One in 10 named American Idol winners as heroes.

Reports say that analysing results they were speechless at a ‘disaster for heroism’ like Gangsta rap. What would happen if we were to do the same in Sri Lanka? What if the school-goers and youth were asked to name their ‘hero’? While America laments that the generation which grew up idolising great civil rights leaders are no more, what would our lament be? Their sad conclusion was that they are left with mostly ‘a community that aspires to become pimps and strippers.’ While they are crushed at ‘hyper materialistic, misogynistic hip-hop culture’ producing new heroes, they recognise the inability of our communities to find alternative role models.

We know for a fact that devotion to heroes can be extremely strong. All too often we are directed towards the wrong hero. With destructive, dangerous people with a widespread heroic appeal, it is a struggle. But the answer can be personal. We should keep reminding ourselves who our own heroes are and more importantly why and what they represent for us. Next is to ask ourselves whether we are doing all that we can to live up to those ideals. Part of the answer is personal. It never hurts us to remind ourselves who our own heroes are and what they represent for us.

Heroes have to be introduced. There is a great emphasis on the duty of parents as well as teachers. This is why education is far greater than examinations and marks. Parents and teachers can use this opportunity to nourish the youngsters. How hard it is to teach about heroes? It is a matter of telling a beautiful story. The beauty of heroic lives is that they already have the appeal. It is just a matter of putting some effort to tell the story. Heroes can be introduced at any time, with any lesson or life experience. The stories still matter. The stories of people who made a difference with courage and nobility who made the world a better place should be told to our students and children. In other countries, children are taken to meet police officers and fire fighters who are real life heroes. They are given the uniforms to wear and more importantly made to understand how heroism is all about service and taking care of or saving others.

 It is not too hard to recommit to that purpose of telling stories. Imagine yourself tonight, with a small book on a national hero or listing out five most important heroes and reading. Telling real life stories, introducing your children to someone who can speak of their far from easy jobs can reawaken their imagination. Even scholars agree that we should go back to the simplest of things. Recommit to that purpose.

By Priyangwada Perera