It happened at Planet Fitness this final day of the slog through January. I was working out on a strength training machine next to a strong, sculpted 20 something. Even drenched in sweat, she looked like a model. On the torso rotator, I lost internet connection and my audiobook went silent mid-sentence so I turned on my 2022 Spotify playlist for distraction and randomly, my friend, Ben Rector started singing about Heroes. It’s one of my most listened to songs of 2022 but today, it sounded brand new. As Ben lamented the loss of his childhood heroes, my eyes involuntarily sprung a slow, dripping leak.
His song tells a story about the innocence of childhood and in the archives of my memory, I see a kid riding her banana seat bike to Baskin Robbins and sitting on the front step licking a Superman cone. That was me. Back then, he recalls feeling certain that his heroes had the right answers to all of life’s biggest questions, whatever they were, until he realized they didn’t. We call this developmental awakening “growing up”. It’s when we start to notice with disillusion, disappointment and sometimes even disdain the ways our heroes are, at times, flawed, phonies and failures.
Ben says it like this:
I miss when I had superpowers. My imagination was my friend and it ran wild and free. I could waste a couple hours without a worry in the world staring at stars out on my trampoline.
I miss when Andy Mc Arthur was the fastest kid there was and kid there was ever gonna be. Ken Griffey Jr. was a giant, before parents got divorced and I learned that there was gravity.
I miss my Bible study leader. Had all the answers for living in the big bad world. Don’t know if he still talks to Jesus but his wife’s remarried now and I think he sells garage doors.
I miss when I thought chasing dreams was holy magic behind curtains in a sacred place. Before it was managers and lawyers who colored up and cashed them out for vacation homes in coastal states.
I miss back when the world was small and we had all the answers. I miss how it was when we were young. I miss back before I understood all the ways that life would break your heart, before I knew that’s what they called growing up.
I miss my old heroes. I had to give them all away.
I miss my old heroes. God, I wish they could’ve stayed.
‘Cause it turns out that the hardest part of growing up’s not getting old, it’s learning how the real world goes.
I miss my old….
I miss my old heroes.
I’ve got 20 years on Ben and at least 30 on the model using the leg press. But I remember when that was me too.
At first, I just felt mad. Mad that my bubble burst. Mad that my rose colored glasses got removed. Mad that my earlier images of people I’d trusted and respected seemed as distorted as a house of mirrors. Anger often masks a more primal emotion- fear. And this coming of age is as terrifying as a toddler losing their security blanket. But fear feels so vulnerable, I powered up instead of groaned. Barely an adult, I didn’t know how to regulate my angst and like Ben describes in his song, I fired my heroes and went looking for replacements.
My parents heads were first on the chopping block. They often are once we recognize that we’ve absorbed some of their toxicity. Besides, they’re easy targets because they’ll love us even when we act like punks. At least, mine did.
Then came religious leaders who manipulated the Bible to advance their messages of name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel, or fundamentalist legalism or christian nationalism, and I started to recognize the distortions.
Even God. I thought He was supposed to superintend the world according to the general principles laid out in Proverbs until I started living out the paradoxes of Ecclesiastes, where resolution to our knotty problems are as illusive as vapor.
All through life our heroes rise and fall. Old ones and new ones alike. And sometimes we outgrow them and their answers. I wish this process was a once and done, like adolescence but growing up really is a perpetual experience, a repeating exercise in making space for people as they are rather than what we pretended they were.
Some of my heroes had to go. It was best to kick them to the curb and keep walking. Most of them aren’t like that though. Maturity morphed my mad into sad. Black and white blaming turned at least 50 shades of gray as I began to grapple with the irreducible complexity of the human experience. When I listen to Ben’s song as 56 year old me, I mostly muse about how many of my heroes have been people trying their best to live out their convictions, just like I am. They haven’t gotten it all right. Sometimes they’ve royally screwed up and I have been harmed. Other times, the same people have been a wellspring of good and I have been helped. Because we all are both image bearers of God and sinners by birth, choice and generational influence, there is no other way than the conundrum of the broken-beautiful.
Days morphed into weeks and months and years and decades and now, I’ve raised four amazing humans. A compassionate observer, I’m hearing their questions reverberate mine. Watching them sort through the same confusion. Experience similar dissolution. Walk out their own unique, lifelong journeys of growing up.
To them, to me, to us all—
May we find peace and rest and security in Jesus when our heroes disappoint and fail us.
May we grow in grace for the irreducible complexity of every person whose influence paradoxically helps and hurts, including ourselves.
May we cultivate repentance when it is our defects that dispirit others.
May we all find a soft spot to land in our Heavenly Father’s arms when we need to have our injuries nursed,
Rest in His green pastures when we are weary of having our hearts broken,
Courage to fly on eagles wings when our strength has been restored,
Endurance to run our marathon, a cloud of witnesses cheering us on.
And may we see Jesus footprints behind us, beside us and before us, all the way to the finish line.