Shouldn’t I Look More Like My Role Models?


Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking.], 08/28/1963

Shouldn’t a question about who you consider to be your role model elicit some kind of immediate response? Shouldn’t a face or a name pop into your mind? The names I think of seem too easy: Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Perhaps I have something of the martyr about me.) If those are the people who come to mind when I’m asked about my role models, shouldn’t I have some sense of how I model my life after them? That is to say, shouldn’t role models occupy some more tangible place within one’s life than easy go-to answers, used to forestall reflection rather than to encourage it?

I can’t explain why I find this troubling. Perhaps, because as an Aristotelian, I take emulation to be the sine qua non of growth, learning, and maturity. In other words, I believe that everything worth being in life comes from emulating the actions, behavior, emotions, and gestures of others. That’s how children learn, how arc-welders learn, how doctors and philosophers and fry cooks learn. Our cultural fantasies about the self-made individual notwithstanding, we learn who we are not by making it up as we go along, but by watching and imitating–even when we don’t realize that’s what we’re doing.

So, what does it mean that I don’t have a more conscious idea about how I imitate the people I say I admire? Does it mean that I’m kidding myself about how invested I am in becoming like them? It could be that I only like the idea of Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., but am unwilling to take the difficult steps to live my life like them–a possibility I don’t like, even though there may be some truth in it. It could be that I have so thoroughly identified with them that I don’t have to think about living like them–a possibility I’d like to think is true, even though I realize it’s not. Perhaps, my attachment to Jesus and MLK as role models is some strange admixture of the two–a hybrid of fear and stumbling attempts at getting it right.

I’d like to give a more certain answer to the question about the place of role models in my life. But I will console myself with the knowledge that, though naming a role model is insufficient to the task of emulating a role model, not having any names is a recipe for failure.

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