“One of the best ways to elevate your character is to emulate worthy role models.” – Epictetus
When I meet people, I often ask them to describe their role models to me, especially those which they’ve had while growing up; for me, it’s a great way to get to know them and, more specifically, what they stand for. Unfortunately, for the most part, my question is met with silence and confusion, as though I were an interrogator in a court room, asking where they were on the night of such and such date at such and such time. To me, the question seems be a simple one and at least somewhat easy to answer; I can list several individuals off the top of my head who have profoundly impacted my life and my thinking. So, I began to wonder why it was was so hard for others; I wondered if they had role models (outside of their vague answer of “my parents”), and if anyone had ever impacted them in the ways in which my role models impacted me.
Through the lens of the MeToo movement, we’ve received a clear picture of our mostly male dominated society, unforgivably bereft of positive exemplars. And through that same lens, we’ve seen the consequences of the way chauvinistic fathers have decided to raise their daughters. To look up to, to emulate, to aspire: these are all positive and necessary traits of all of our developments, as we need people to mirror and inspire us, especially while we’re young. And, as history continues to indicate, a society bereft of positive role models fosters ignorance, cowardice, and unscrupulousness. When a child has no one to turn to for guidance, or a poor guiding light, they’ll fail to develop the requisite set of values our society needs to protect ourselves and one another from avoidable harm. The MeToo movement is, in part, a result of our failure to provide figures for our children to emulate, in turn depriving them of the meaning of good character.
Philosophically, the concepts of character and values are, and have always been, intertwined; one perpetually exists with the other. Through character, and through our value systems, we create ourselves. Through our individual processes of growth, we become who we really are, and who we have always had the potential to be. But, it is only through the necessity of modeling that we’re able to assess the quality of various actions, and it is this which affords us the freedom of choice, for now our decisions stem from our ability to reason rather than a primitive reliance on instinct. The necessity of modeling entails that the depravity of exemplars essentially becomes the depravity of character, and if we truly want to know why our sons behave as beasts, our answers can be found by looking inwardly; it is apparent that our failures are the failures of our children, and those failures can’t exist in isolation.
Culture, and what we allow it to become, stems from us, and yet, we treat it as though it existed as some external entity outside of control, as though the notion of change were somehow irrelevant. When we use excuses such as “Boys will be boys” and “It’s always been that way,” we, unconsciously, perpetuate the same values that we deem natural, fostering a society of violators and enablers. History and the prominent role models of earlier periods are there; they’re there for us, calling out for us to listen. And if we choose to, they can teach us the meaning of morality and the significance of good character. They can be there for us in trying times to communicate our survival. And when we’re hurt and when we suffer, their stories can afford us the solace we feel while lying under a warm blanket on a cold winter’s eve. Who they were is who we are, or have the potential to become. Their stories are our stories, and their suffering is our suffering. History, we’re taught, is there to teach us about mistakes, but, I think, it’s also there to inspire and to enliven; it’s there to help us identify with and learn from, and become like, those great individuals whose tales ripple out with the power of a great tide.
For me, my role models have made me who I am. Tupac Shakur, Eugene Debs, James Cagney, Bill Hicks, Malcolm X, George Carlin, Tim Stroup, Irv Yalom, Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Charles Darwin, Carl Jung, Noam Chomsky, Sigmund Freud, Socrates, and Bobby Kennedy have in one way or another inspired, motivated, consoled, and comforted me; they were my muses. As humans, all of these men constituted sets of positive and negative traits, and as Epictetus would suggest, I’ve tried my best to emulate those which signify dignity, grace, and integrity. To have a role model isn’t the same as having an idol, and thus idealization; it doesn’t imply that one has to excuse away the bad or even to perceive it as good. For the notion of a good role model, and healthy emulation, entails an accurate assessment of one’s character traits, internalizing only those which are reasoned to be valuable.
For all of those individuals I’ve mentioned above, I would have never become the man that I am today. Their stories were my guiding light, and their experiences were my sources of comfort through life’s challenging periods. It was through them that I was able to connect and feel understood, and it was through them that I was able to grasp the necessity of moral courage in times when such a notion seldom leaves its concealed form. This blog post was written in the hope that we will begin to redirect our children, especially our boys, and begin to help them cultivate their own value systems through the use of history and lore. These individuals who’ve come before us exist, and will continue to do so, as long as their lives continue to be shared. Their great gifts, our greatest ones, are the exemplary lives that they lived. And the best part is that they will remain ours as long as we choose to continue to use them.