Some years ago basketball player Charles Barkley famously said (and Nike made an ad campaign out of) “I am not a role model.” His point was he was an athlete rather than a role model, and should not be raising your kids, etc. There was much banter about this in the sports opinion press and the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that (famous) athletes are role models whether they like it or not. But I think the wrong argument was being made. Athletes are heroes rather than role models. We try to emulate their achievements and for the most part can never reach their heights (winning an MVP trophy, setting records) largely because only a minuscule (side note – I just typed in miniscule and the spell check line came on. I looked up the word and, well, realized I had been spelling it wrong all these years) percentage of the population ever even gets to be a pro athlete, let alone dominate a sport. But the idea is that we look up to people who “do great things” (even in the context of sports, which in reality is nowhere near as important as we make it) and try to emulate that in our own way.
A role model is different. A role model is someone whom you actively try to pattern yourself after. I want to be a good father who has time for my daughters in the same way my father always had time for me, I want to emulate my mother in exercising good judgment while driving, that sort of thing. I have no idea if I discipline our children the way Wayne Gretzky disciplined his, and I don’t really care, but I do admire his work ethic and drive and would benefit from applying this to my life.
The saints, and this evening we had vespers for a big one – St. Nicholas – serve the dual purpose of role models and heroes. St. Nicholas was a devout man and an all-around good Christian – loving, helped the poor, loved Christ, etc. We can no doubt learn much from his life, ask for his intercessions, and try to follow his example. But he also lived 1700 years ago in a very different era. There is, I think, a limit to how much he can be a role model – the distance is so great that is is hard to relate to him. But in the meantime he has been turned into a hero. He is a major saint, his feast is celebrated, people are named after him, and we see his icon everywhere. St. Nicholas, and the other saints, embody the best of both the role model and the hero. We can glean much from their lives and try to follow their example, and we can also look up to them and strive for greatness in our own small way.