Douglass Blvd Christian Church

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Shouldn't I Look More Like My Role Models?

Martin Luther King.jpeg

By Derek Penwell

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.