One of the highlights of my year is reading nominations for the La Crosse Tribune Person of the Year. What stands out is not just the extraordinary goodness of a few people but the basic everyday goodness of so many.
Those who are nominated are not celebrities, and they are not “heroes,” at least not in the sense we are accustomed to using that word. They haven’t set any world records; they haven’t saved dozens of lives in the battlefield; they haven’t resolved a world conflict. But they have gone out of their way to be helpful to others, and they have been unusually dedicated and successful at doing so.
The nominations are submitted out of love, admiration and gratitude. That itself reveals something about the people we most deeply respect: They are the people we know, not the celebrities we see only on TV.
This year, the Person of the Year selection process coincided with the news that Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers left fielder and National League MVP had tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Braun is a poor role model for kids, not because he cheated but because the kids who admire him for his achievements cannot also observe the person who is not in the spotlight: the person who practices every day, who studies film, who lifts weights and also, most importantly, deals with difficulties and setbacks.
For the same reason, football stars like Aaron Rodgers and Tim Tebow are poor role models. Not because we may discover some skeleton in their closets, but simply because we don’t know anything about their closets.
The best role model for a child is not a saint or hero but someone with whom the child can identify and emulate. And that requires a certain degree of familiarity. For that reason the best role models tend to be extended family members, teachers, coaches or neighbors.
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This is not to say that celebrities cannot be good role models. Sports figures like Tim Tebow or Aaron Rodgers may be exemplary role models for their nieces and nephews, or for kids in their neighborhoods — that is, when they have an ongoing, regular presence in the life of someone. But they cannot be effective role models for thousands of kids. It just doesn’t work that way.
The problem with having celebrities as role models is that we don’t get to see what goes into the achievements. We don’t get to see their private lives — their struggles, their preparation, the boring everyday stuff that makes up the majority of a person’s life.
In “Soul of a Citizen,” Paul Loeb recounts listening to a radio interview with Rosa Parks in which she was introduced as the black woman who one day refused to go to the back of the bus and thus set in motion the civil rights movement. But this description, Loeb points out, is misleading. Rosa Parks had spent years preparing for that moment by educating herself about civil rights, attending meetings and leading a local NAACP chapter. The real story of Rosa Parks isn’t the one act on the bus, it is the years of activity that led to an occasion when her refusal to move would have national significance.
When we focus too much on spectacular achievements, we tend to forget about all the hard, boring, nonspectacular work that makes those achievements possible. And we fail to give children a true depiction of how to become really good at something. After all, one isn’t simply born into greatness. One becomes a Rosa Parks or an Aaron Rodgers slowly, patiently, over many hours and days and years.
Perhaps in a celebrity-infatuated, media-saturated culture, we are simply not used to paying attention to the everyday goodness that makes our communities thrive. But when we do pay attention by nominating our neighbors, friends and coworkers for recognition, it reminds us that we are surrounded by goodness, much of it hidden in plain sight.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.