John Glenn, American Hero, departed this earth one last time this week. His life followed the story line of the classic Hero’s Journey – a classic three-part narrative where the individual sets out on an adventure into something unknown, faces a decisive challenge or set of challenges and achieves victory, and transformed by the experience returns home a hero. Glenn was a hero several times over. He was a marine and World War II combat veteran, the last surviving member of the original Mercury astronauts and the first person to orbit the earth, a US senator for 25 years, and a devoted husband to his wife, Annie, of 73 years.
We love heroes, we want heroes, we construct heroes, we need heroes. Why?
Heroes teach by doing. Most human behavior is learned by observation, imitation and modeling. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory has generated a compendium of research that illustrates time and again, that we learn by paying attention to those around us, observing their behavior and attitudes, and taking stock of the outcomes they achieve. If we observe good outcomes, we are more likely to emulate the behaviors we observe. Heroes embody the cultural values and aspirations that we hope to teach our children. Heroes teach all of us – if we take the time to watch carefully.
Heroes challenge the status quo. John Glenn defended the values of freedom, took us into space, was author of the nuclear non-proliferation act as senator, and was devoted to his childhood sweetheart for the duration of his life. We identify with heroes by virtue of their embodying values and ideals that we share. By circumstance and conviction, individuals become heroes when they embark on adventures that we identify with, and vicariously we join them on the journey. In effect, their victories not only change them but change society – change what we know to be possible. Public heroes like John Glenn model curiosity, imagination, conviction, courage, and perseverance – these are traits that we value – these are traits that are foundational for mental health and wellbeing.
Heroes expand the good. Heroism has been described as the conjunction of risk taking and service to a socially valued goal. A hero, in the classic sense, often sacrifices his or her personal concerns for some greater good. In combat, in space, on the Hill, at home – John Glenn gave of himself in order to improve society and expand the good. In doing so, he embodied qualities we value as a society: strength, selflessness, ingenuity, compassion, integrity, empathy. Modeling for others, a virtuous cycle is set in motion. Best case scenario: others take up the mantle to emulate and expand what they have learned.
Heroes inspire hope. Contemporary theories of hope and optimism posit that positive expectancies can shape human behavior and promote well-being. And hope, as opposed to optimism, is related to personal control. We have hope when we have some sense that we can accomplish something. When he was eight, John Glenn begged his parents to take him to their hometown airport, where he watched the flight traffic with awe. As a war hero, he took his piloting skills to outer space when he became an astronaut. He fought to reduce the risk of nuclear war when he became a US Senator. His actions will continue to model for generations to come that change belongs to those who dare to hope.
Heroes embody generosity. John Glenn’s life was a life of service: military service, service to science, public service in governance, loyal service to his wife and family. He helped found what is now the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University, his home state, to encourage public service. He could have stopped after serving in World War II. He could have stopped after nearly being burnt to a crisp as he re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere in a space capsule. He could have stopped after serving in the senate. But virtually by definition, heroes are heroes not only because of the good they create, and not only because of the victories they achieve, but because they return home to share their boons, to share with those that have only traveled vicariously their transformation of self, and make it a public good.
Heroes are real people with warts and fears and limitations – just like the rest of us. We don’t need more superheroes in the world, we need real people who we identify with, who are able to steward cultural values and ideals, who model for us the courage to set out on a journey that inspires us and instills in us the hope that we can be part of contributing to evolving humanity for the better.
Thank you, John Glenn – you will be remembered as a hero.