Heroes, Role Models, and the Difference Between Them

We talk a lot about heroes within the MS population. For example, whenever a fellow patient takes up a challenge such as a walkathon fundraiser, we cheer them on and celebrate their accomplishments. We call them heroes and give them a shout out for a job well done. Or, when an MS advocate takes great pains to travel to a conference despite personal discomfort — perhaps even risking public humiliation and hardship depending on her unique set of disabilities — we might call her a hero for pushing herself out of her comfort zone to connect with colleagues and then brainstorm projects that improve the lives of MS patients the world over. Her peeps on social media ply her with heart emoticons and superlatives — you’re the best, the greatest, sending hugs to the most awesome patient leader — making her feel valued and cherished, and best of all, gratified that her work is making a real difference. That kind of support is one reason why we have a presence on such platforms.

Role models in the MS community

Role model, on the other hand, is a label I don’t see much of in the MS community. Despite this, role models abound. Perhaps I see them because they are the ones I’ve always sought, all the way back to childhood. I never called them heroes. In fact, I never thought of anybody as a hero except Mighty Mouse when I was four years old, but that was a complicated relationship, as it often can be. I wanted to be saved by him but I also wanted to be him. Was he a hero, a role model, both? What is the difference between them? I researched these labels and discovered an abundance of opinions. Here are three that were particularly resonant:

Alykhan Gulakali

To me, a hero is someone who inspires you. A role model is someone you want to be.

Jenny Lyn Bader

Role models may live next door, while a hero might be a courageous head of state, a saint, a leader of armies… A role model might be someone who put in a three-day presidential bid, your local minister, your boss. They don’t need their planes to go down in flames to earn respect. Role models have a job, accomplishment, or hairstyle worth emulating.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger

Talk radio host and marriage and family therapist: “…The "classic" definition of hero: someone who voluntarily leaves a point of safety to assume risk of losing their lives saving or attempt to save the life of another." This is different from a role model... We overdo the word "hero." I don't mean to diminish or dismiss the efforts of people who are in no harm's way and help somebody else. Those are good role models, but they are not heroes…”

Dr. Laura’s thoughts might offend some, much as her brusque, tough love approach to relationships did during the 1990s, prompting numerous parodies on comedy shows such as FRAZIER (1993-2004). Nevertheless, she wrote a thoughtful and convincing piece that offers cogent examples of people who were deemed heroes but who also rejected that label, such as “Sully” Sullenberger, the captain of a commercial plane in trouble who landed it safely in the Hudson River, and a group of elderly Japanese volunteers who chose to defuse a dangerous nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, thereby sparing the young people from developing cancer and radiation poisoning. I highly recommend reading the entire article.

Heroes vs. role models

The thing I appreciated most about these readings is how it helped clarify my own thoughts. There are heroes all around me that are invisible until I/we need them: soldiers, firefighters, paramedics, and cops. Although they are paid and trained to enter dangerous situations, it doesn’t diminish the many calm, level-headed decisions they make to mitigate a life-threatening situation, sometimes without regard to their own safety.

What’s more, there are everyday acts of self-sacrifice by ordinary people who leave a safe place to save someone else: a Good Samaritan who drowns saving a child that’s fallen through frozen river ice, or the passerby who witnesses a shakedown and rescues the victim but suffers disability or death in the process.

I tend to want to make role models out of heroes in unconventional ways, too. I know I’ll get criticism for this, but it happens to be very meaningful for me. The role Jesus Christ has played in monotheistic religion is largely that of divine hero, the penultimate prophet in the long biblical narrative of sin and redemption that began with Abraham and Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures and ended with Muhammad and the Koran. Atheist that I am, I removed Christ’s divinity to make him an accessible role model. I see him as an enlightened earthling who lived a near-perfect human life. That way I can aspire to being a better person according to the Beatitudes contained in his Sermon on the Mount. Love your neighbor (aka “enemy”) is the hardest message of all to emulate — and that’s probably why he challenged us with it.

Behaviors we can learn

Not that JC isn’t made of hero material, too. After all, he left a safe haven and suffered scourging and execution to, as far as I’m concerned, awaken compassion and pity in people that they could then project onto each other. In my book, it’s the role models that engage in selfless acts, compassion and understanding that make the biggest impact, modeling behaviors we can learn. Those are gifts they give us that we will receive only if we see them. If we’re not careful, we might do a better job of respecting and valuing one another.

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