This is a comment by Jake on the post “Who Are Your Real-Life Heroes“.
I remember when I was a young lad, my hero was Stephen Hawking. He’s really got everything you want in a role model, I think: excellence in his own field, renown outside of it through his popular works, and of course a truly heroic story of beating the odds—the doctors told him he had only a short time left, but instead he lived on and became one of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists. I idolized him most when I still thought I could be a physicist (this was in middle school, before math started getting hard) and as my interests shifted I picked other people to look up to, from Aristotle to Howard Zinn.
Hawking always stuck with me though. A mathematician friend of my parents gave me a copy of The Universe in a Nutshell when I was 10 and it really excited me. It’s a great introduction to modern physics, though I think a bit outdated now. It had a nice combination of clearly-explained concepts, clever analogies, and pretty pictures of everything from experiments to what p-branes might look like to a 4-dimensional being. I don’t think Hawking is a particularly “manly” hero to have—if anything, he struck me at the time as almost incorporeal. Denied the use of all but a few of his own muscles, he lived almost entirely in a world of the mind. I think that concept fascinated me too, at that young age. Some people have credited his extremely mental existence as helping his mathematical and theoretical creativity (though it’s certainly not a prerequisite—see Feynman.)
That said, I certainly still see Hawking as embodying a kind of disciplined thinking that is befitting of a man (and I mean here a man in contrast to a boy, not a man in contrast to a woman. I certainly don’t wish to propagate the nasty stereotype that women cannot be disciplined thinkers). Though I no longer want to be a physicist, I still do want to think with rigor and creativity. That strikes me as a very adult and very full way of engaging with the world, and it’s an attitude worthy of being looked up to by anyone, but perhaps especially by someone who might otherwise look up to a Don Draper or an Avenger or someone else who wields power but lacks the depth of understanding to use it well.
Perhaps what I am trying to say is that being a man is not about possessing capabilities that give you power over others, but rather the awareness and discipline that let you use your own capabilities as well as possible. But I really don’t know. I’m nearing college graduation, rocking on the cusp of adulthood, and mostly feeling lost and unsure of almost everything except that my own awareness and discipline has much development yet to do.
Photo credit: Flickr / texas_mustang