“There’s no gods, and there’s precious few heroes,
But there’s many on the dole in the land of the leal.”
Over the years, I have learned to avoid meeting heroes and role-models. I don’t think it’s fair to project expectations on anybody. Just as importantly, the meeting is almost always disappointing. Either the gap between the expectations and the reality is too great, or, in order to become the sort of person who might be a hero, people have developed a callousness and disregard for others of which I strenuously disapprove.
Fortunately, I’ve never been much prone to hero-worship. Most of the celebrities that popular culture gossips about leave me indifferent, just as the handful I admire – generally, artists of various sorts or free and open source software (FOSS) contributors — would leave the average person indifferent. Besides, being well into middle-age, I’m past the point where I might need heroes as an example.
Occasionally, meeting heroes does turn out well. Linus Torvalds instantly gained my approval when I suddenly realized after fifteen minutes whom I was talking to, and that he had made no attempt to play celebrity. I will always appreciate, too, David Brin’s graciousness when I made a remark about “the days when the Nebula Awards meant something,” and he immediately replied, “I thought that way, too, until I won one.” As for Paul Edwin Zimmer, my rehearsed remark led to a three hour conversation on the floor of a convention hotel and a life-long friendship.
By contrast, Paul’s sister, Marion Zimmer Bradley, disappointed me so badly that, after meeting her, I could never read her books again. I was surprised that, when I talked about the depth she had added to some of her recent publications, she attributed the change entirely to being able to write longer manuscripts. Now, I wonder if she simply wasn’t willing to talk about her work in any detail, but in subsequent meetings, she proved so gruff and abrupt that my disillusionment was beyond repair, even when her extended family assured me that her behavior was “just Marion being Marion.”
Then there was the FOSS celebrity who saw their ego as the center of everything around them. They were undoubtedly sincere in their advocacy, but the way they twisted every conversation around to themselves quickly progressed from mildly amusing to teeth-grindingly annoying. It didn’t help that in their endless quest for personal celebrity, they would often assume an authority nobody had granted them, and claim to speak for the entire project with which we were both involved – especially since I usually had to clean up after them.
Still another FOSS celebrity, whom many respect, proved a borderline personality, hypocritical and full of their own importance that I came to realize that interacting with them would only be a nagging annoyance, and they would be unlikely to succeed in their latest project anyway.
My disillusion in such cases doesn’t come from the fact that people are human. Rather, it comes from the fact that they make no effort to be decent human beings while aspiring to special treatment. Unlike the rest of us, they appear to have missed the lesson most intelligent people learn during their first semester at university – that they are not necessarily the smartest people in a conversation.
I have lost none of the aspirations that usually lead people to hero-worship. But I have become skeptical that anybody deserves to be considered heroic. These days, I cultivate admiration for specific accomplishments, rather than for the people who carry them out, and generally find myself becoming less disillusioned as result.