Every day around the world — perhaps every minute — a ball is tossed into a basket, kicked into a goal or hit past the outfield.
By a child. A wheelchair-bound athlete. A parent playing in the backyard with her kids. A grandpa whose knees will regret it later but whose heart will be full nonetheless.
So it’s not the rarity of the act that makes it heroic. But when pushed into the big leagues, where viewership soars, those goals, hoops and scores bring whispers of greatness. Or roars.
I’m thinking particularly, of course, about Kobe Bryant’s unexpected and early death last week. I’m thinking about his stature among the greatest of our athletes and the way we almost deify athletes for their abilities.
And, being a Missouri girl through and through, I’m thinking about Patrick Mahomes today. The way his creative athleticism and surprising joy have given us Show-Me-Staters plenty of reasons to cheer, no matter how far he takes us.
I’m thinking of heroes. Of who we spend our time adoring and supporting. Of who our kids grow up to trust, value and imitate, and what happens to that sense of trust when their heroes are revealed to be merely human after all. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” we cry in desperation. Because holding onto the truth about a flawed or even harmful person doesn’t come easily when that person has given us such a soaring sense of pride.
I hope we can all agree that even our heroes, even our favorite best people, even the ones we think are shining examples of wholesome goodness and hard work (and even those who have very expensive public relations firms to help them clean up their images after a problem arises), all of these memorably heroic people are still, after all, people.
And people have flaws. Sometimes huge flaws.
Consider the alleged predations of Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby. The racism of John Wayne. The antisemitism of Roald Dahl and Henry Ford. The doping of Lance Armstrong. Britney Spears’ breakdown. Michael Phelps’ weed. Tom Brady’s deflated football. The cheating of Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Even Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled. It doesn’t erase his accomplishments on the court or his by-all-accounts excellence as a parent, but it complicates our appreciation.
Whether through personal shortcomings or culturally accepted maxims of their day, some of our beloved heroes fall. It’s a rare person, indeed, who both holds our attention and deserves it, with not a breath of scandal or even mere humanity in their wake.
I recently watched an episode of Netflix’s “The Crown,” wherein Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, becomes enamored with the heroic actions of America’s moon-men: Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The action shows that when granted a one-on-one audience with the astronauts, Phillip was prepared to be thunderstruck. Yet the three pilot-scientists were all a little under the weather, with nothing earth-shattering to report. They simply did their work, they told Phillip. Checked the technology, kept to the protocols and ticked the right boxes.
But what of the philosophical impact of standing on the surface of the moon, Phillip wondered. What of the splendor of witnessing the earth in its brilliance?
The astronauts shrugged. “We didn’t have time for anything like that,” they told him. “And we were tired.”
Phillip was heartbroken. His heroes — these larger-than-life adventurers, conquering new feats for the sake of humanity while Phillip himself spent his days giving measured speeches from the depths of the queen’s shadow — they were just men, after all.
Men with the sniffles. And some good luck. And a terrible lot of excellent training.
Coming to terms with demoting one’s hero, though, isn’t a one-episode plotline for most of us. Some of us deny our heroes’ flaws or maintain our devotion because it’s easier than questioning what we want from them.
But I think we can help prepare ourselves and our kids for the inevitable moment our heroes are brought down to earth, no matter how devastatingly. Or boringly. Doing so means reminding ourselves that while the people we look up to can seem perfect, that’s never true, whether we’re talking about Instagram influencers, professional athletes or historical idols. By projecting onto them our need for infallibility, we play some part in setting them up to fail. We break our own hearts, in a way.
Or maybe it’s good for us and our kids to witness the downfall of our heroes every once in a while. They’re reminded that the true heroes are smaller and less celebrated. Daily heroics shouldn’t always be about what our favorite sportsball team did on the field. They should also be about kids who pitch in to do the dirty work of life. The coach who pours encouragement and accountability into her players. The school administrator who fights for her students’ needs. The parents working hard to heal their damaged parts and raise children who are whole and stable.
This puts me in mind of the quote from satirist and journalist P.J. O’Rourke: “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help mom do the dishes.” By worshiping famous heroes rather than extolling regular people and their daily contributions toward a life worth living, we forget about reality. We forget our heroes are only human. We make sweeping assessments about a person’s goodness and jump off assumption-cliffs about their worthiness because we like the way they tell a story or dunk a ball. We give them very little room to be normal or flawed.
Admitting that our heroes might not be perfect — even those who are trying to win the Super Bowl for one’s home state — also invites us to be honest about our own flaws and embrace the idea that our mistakes aren’t the end of us but the beginning. They offer us an opportunity to decide who we want to be going forward. Like contemporary poet Nikki Giovanni claims, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.”
It is our response to our own errors, and our response to the errors of our beloved favorites, that counts. It’s our response to our mistakes or breakdowns or hurt relationships that counts. It’s our vulnerable acknowledgment that we will mess up something, sometime, and let someone down, that perhaps allows us to understand, forgive or make peace with someone else’s mistakes.
No matter how heroic their beginnings.
SARAH COYNE is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.