“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Christopher Nolan’s exceptional Batman trilogy devotes much of its energy to exploring the nature of what it means to be a hero—the idea that it is not their individual heroics that has the greatest impact in changing the world, but what they represent, and how they become a symbol that inspires normal people to want to be better, and give them hope that they can be.
At its heart, its storyline is about the conflict between two views of the world and human nature. One one side, we have the idealism of Bruce Wayne, who beneath his flippant exterior holds a deeply felt belief that people will do the right thing given the chance, and all they need is a little help.
Expecting the Worst
The plans of each of the villains, however, are built on the assumption that people only do the right thing because of fear of punishment, and if you were to take away the external constraints of society they would act in their own self interest. All the things we uphold as virtues—love, kindness, integrity, heroism—are hollow words that we pay lip service to because we have to.
The villains don’t have to do anything more than expose the emptiness of society’s values and let us do the rest—because their worldview is built on the idea that they don’t even have to destroy the world—we will turn upon one another at the first opportunity and do it for them.
Broken Heart of Darkness
It’s ironic that it’s Harvey Dent who is the source of the statement at the start of this article. He starts out as champion of that belief in people’s capacity for good, rekindling Batman’s flagging idealism, but by the time he is making that speech he has fallen to the dark side, drive insane by grief and devoid of hope. In his despair, he tells Batman that is the reality, that all heroes are doomed to fail, its just a matter of time.
It’s a line that has resonated with many viewers, becoming an internet meme that oops up every time there is another scandalous revelation about some celebrity. For those of my vintage it is particularly haunting, barely a day goes by where we discover that yet another hero of our youth had more than just feet of clay, but were really villains.
How can you enjoy something like The Cosby Show or Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport knowing what we know now? Dent was wrong about one thing, though, you don’t need to actually live long enough to become a villain, the truth lives on and does not stay on the other side of the grave—nor should it, of course.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about finding out that our heroes were fallible, that they made mistakes or had flaws. That’s just part of being human, and if we are honest none of us can pretend that there aren’t things that we would rather future generations didn’t discover and judge us for.
I am talking about finding out that everything that someone stood for was a lie, that the they weren’t just less than perfect, but deliberately flying a false flag. We can understand falling short of who we want to be because we all know what that is like. It’s discovering that there was never anything beyond the facade that rocks our foundations. It not only destroys their individual legacy, but can make us questions the values we thought they stood for.
As we have seen again and again, and as Dent points out, it’s just a matter of time. Spend long enough in the the public eye, dead or alive, and the truth will come out. As Harvey points out, it’s just a matter of time. That’s why it has been so remarkable when you take a look at the life and legacy of Reverend Billy Graham, who passed away recently.
How, then, is it that after almost seven decades of being under scrutiny, of moving in the highest of circles, Graham’s legacy has remained largely untainted by the scandals or missteps that have not only brought down so many of his peers, but undone much of what good work they did do and tarnished the values they claimed to embody?
That’s not to say he was perfect, there were things he himself listed as regrets as he looked back during the later years of his life. But when you earn the respect of even those who reject what you stand for, especially in this increasingly divided world, and manage to navigate partisan politics so well as to be seen as above the fray there must be something there.
So, how did Reverend Graham manage to stay a hero to so many, and retain the admiration of most of the rest? What lessons does it hold for others who would avoid becoming a villain? How can we protect ourselves from being dragged down by our toppling idols and losing hope in the beliefs that inspire us?
To me, the first and foremost thing that set him apart was that he was always very careful to not entangle himself with the values he stood for. He saw himself as the messenger, not the message, and its he could take no credit for its achievements. Too many of his contemporaries made themselves the the centre on which the truth of their message stood or fell. That meant their failings reflected on the message and damaged its credibility when their own was found wanting.
Even though there may have been times when he fell short, Graham always gave the impression that the values he espoused were not ones of convenience, and that he was always trying to live up to them. Thats much easier for people to respect than learning that they were simply a matter of convenience, or a mask for something completely else. Values only count if they still count when nobody is watching.
He also gave the impression of being more concerned with living up to the responsibilities that came with his influence, rather than insisting on its the privileges. Where other religious leaders in the States often seek to parlay their influence into power, he made sure his unprecedented presidential access was used to provide spiritual counsel, not to pursue his own agendas.
Lessons in Legacy
In the Batman movies we realise that no one person can bear up under the weight of being a hero, forever, and we need something more than an individual. In the end, human beings will fail, and let us down and that hurts. But, if in the end, Graham did end up being another fallen idol, what he stood for would still remain because of the way he made sure it wasn’t just about him.
We can learn from his lessons. If we remember that that it is the truths and values they stand for that make our heroes worth looking up to, not the other way around, we are no longer hostage to someone else’s choices or behaviour. And, if they fall, our beliefs don’t have to follow them.
And, while we may never have the influence or the ability to inspire of a Batman or a Graham, we can still ensure that we are mindful of our own legacy. If we truly value the things that we claim to champion, then not only should we make it about them, not us, we should make sure they matter just as much when no one is watching.
David Goodwin is the Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine,War Cry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine,War Cry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html