Eric Shapiro wonders if looking up to somebody, by its nature, pushes your own identity down.
It has the reputation of being a good thing, but it can actually backfire and become pretty limiting. Here’s how:
When we have heroes, we look up to them. This is all well and good, but the problem is — in a subtle, sneaky way — simultaneous to looking up, we’re putting ourselves down. We become the subordinate one. The hero is the one who’s supposed to remain on the pedestal and take care of his or her holy business, while we remain down on the ground, consumed in worship.
Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with worship. But that stuff’s for gods. Heroes, ideally, are real people.
But rather than position ourselves beneath our heroes, it’s important that we act like them. That’s when having a hero becomes truly positive. Absent that step, our hero-admiration remains more or less symbolic. Yet when we decide to do what our heroes do, we’re actually making good on what it means to have a hero in the first place.
The truth is, our heroes represent the finest aspects of our own selves. That’s why we choose the ones we choose. Look at it this way: At any given moment, trillions upon trillions of things are going on. As human beings, we’re only able to catch a few at a time. So when we select a hero — out of ALL the people and activities we’re aware of — we’re not so much making a selection as expressing something essential about our own inner lives.
That’s why it’s so important that we act like the people we admire. When we start doing so, we put the aspect of ourselves that the hero embodies into effect. Then the world has one more person in it who’s aspiring to higher values instead of just admiring them.
I have numerous heroes, most of whom I know personally. But if I had to name just one hero who tends to absorb the bulk of my hero-affection, I would have to choose the filmmaker Oliver Stone. The fact that I don’t know the man assists with the absorption process. He’s at an interpersonal remove that allows me to focus solely on his positive traits, which of course isn’t always realistic in a one-on-one relationship.
Which is not to say I think the man has only positive traits. Truth be told, I’m always a little bashful about admitting how much I love him. For one thing, it leads to presumptions: That I’m hardcore left-wing (not remotely true). That I use psychotropic drugs (not remotely true). That I’m into conspiracy theories (not remotely true). That I’m insane (not entirely true). For another thing, I’m well aware that his work can be overwrought and unsubtle a lot of the time. His work doesn’t feature characters; it features CHARACTERS. It doesn’t have themes; it has THEMES. I recall heated arguments from 10 or 15 years ago with my old friend Pete. Stone was Pete’s favorite director. He was not even in my top five. Pete would sit there raving about “JFK” (which returns to theaters this month!) and I’d just make fun of that scene where John Candy’s character starts spouting sinister words, and the film cuts to a giant close-up of his mouth. Gimme a break!
Something happened since then, however. To state it briefly: The whole world changed. The planes hit the towers. The climate got jittery. The citizens of the Earth got more political. Digital technology spread like a joyous virus. Our minds accelerated. Our causes grew hotter. Our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual environments got more charged.
And I at last started getting Oliver Stone.
That’s putting it mildly, in fact. I binged on his films. I at last understood their metabolic disposition. The breakneck intensity of their passion finally made sense in the context of the new world we’d woken up to. I hadn’t lived through the Kennedy assassination, or Vietnam, or the Nixon administration. I’d grown up in the 80s and 90s, amidst such a swell of material comfort that Oliver Stone’s social commentary seemed at odds with reality.
But it was never at odds. It was in tune with a deeper yet higher-vibrating reality. Oliver Stone’s movies encompass reality on uncountable levels. Take “JFK,” for example. It gives you the Kennedy assassination on a ballistic, drilled-down, physical level, yet meanwhile runs thick with a kaleidoscopic, multimedia range of memories, impressions, speculations, suppositions, dreams, nightmares, gods, demons, and even ghosts (I think). He’s everywhere at once, this Oliver Stone.
So as our century turned and our minds got blown open, this film-loving soul could find no greater hero in sight.
But here’s the thing:
Upon my own path as a filmmaker, I didn’t act like him. I preferred to worship him. I regarded his work with extreme intimidation — and still do. My social conscience was evolving, but would I ever approximate his sincere curiosity about history? Could I ever scrape up the bravery and ambition to approach taboo subjects within the limits of my own intellect and point-of-view?
Like my hero, Oliver Stone, I underwent trauma in my late teens. For him it was Vietnam. For me it was far less severe — a wintry bout of mental illness — yet still life-altering and excruciating. Stone’s path through darkness led him to examine the sociopolitical dimensions of his time through often-historical movies. My path through darkness led me to create disturbing dramas best characterized as belonging to the horror genre, with fleeting (if any) nods to the social realities I found so compelling.
And I kept failing.
It drove me crazy. I’d write fiction and create films, gather up humbling praise and sometimes decent distribution, but always find my feet planted squarely in the minor leagues. If you were to believe my most generous reviewers, I was supposed to have one hell of a fastball on me, yet I couldn’t score a win. My day never came. Sure, the odds are stacked high against any person on this path, but why was the universe being such a tease? Why not just issue me atrocious reviews and allow me the peace of quitting?
After a while, it occurred to me: Maybe I wasn’t being true to myself. Sure, my work was always personally expressive, but maybe I wasn’t hunting for big enough game. I wondered: Would I be wiser to take a page from the Oliver Stone book?
This is not to say I sought to mimic him like a psycho fan. Didn’t mean I planned to ape the particularities of his voice and style. What it did mean is I listened to the side of myself that loves him so, and realized that within that side was not just admiration, but capacity. Not just respect, but will.
With all this in mind, I wrote and directed a feature film called LIVING THINGS. It’s not in the horror genre. It depicts a dinnertime encounter between a liberal, pacifist, yoga-teaching vegan and her conservative, veteran, businessman, meat-eater father-in-law. It’s a dispatch straight from the marrow of my being — a cruise through a massive segment of my humanity. And the best part is: It’s not about me. Nor is it about Oliver Stone. It’s about human values, how people exist, the nature of violence, the violence of history, the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of activism, and lots more.
I didn’t have Hollywood funding — not even close — but still, the film is bigger than I am. Still in its infancy, it’s picked up an endorsement from the largest animal rights organization in the world. This doesn’t mean it’ll be successful. Doesn’t mean it’ll make a dime, much less be universally appreciated. However, in the course of creating this thing, I realized something profoundly beautiful:
It doesn’t matter to me if it succeeds. It encompasses so much of my truth that I’m just glad it’s now on the planet. Hopefully someday my son, who’s now a little over two, will watch it. And perhaps he’ll see a new dimension of his dad. Whether that happens or not, I rest easy knowing the dimension is accessible in finite form.
To be sure, there’s a time for us to seek our true selves, and find heroes to worship along that path. But if we wish for our journey to be truly enriching, then it’s time to stop worshiping what we love and start embodying it. Time to recognize that the values we’re admiring are not confined only to the hero, but can be spread and shared. And time to stop being bashful about having a hero, because all that really means is we’re bashful about embodying the hero’s values.
It is time, in other words — my friends — to start acting like Oliver Stone.