A while ago, I and a couple others were talking animatedly about the upcoming release of some highly-anticipated superhero movies. I mentioned Captain America (one of my personal favorites, however trite the movies he appears in are becoming).
“Oh, Captain America,” one of the girls said, waving a hand dismissively. “He’s too perfect. I like Spider-Man. He has actual human faults.”
I was a bit miffed. Besides the extremely sensible reason that Captain America should be good because he represents our country (my point of view, anyway), I didn’t concur with my friend’s judgment. I didn’t regard Captain America to be “too perfect”. He did some things which I didn’t agree with and made some decisions that didn’t seem to be ideal. But I think I understood what my friend saw in Captain America because it was something that annoyed me in other characters. To her, Captain America was a goody-goody and compared to the flamboyant Spider-Man, he certainly can be seen that way. But could it be that anyone could be “too perfect”?
“Too perfect”. “Disgustingly virtuous”. “Annoyingly cheerful”. How often have we heard or coined phrases like these? How can it be that the qualities which should be most attractive to people are so off-putting to so many?
First of all, we should draw a distinction between the sincere and the superficial. I have encountered my fair share of intolerably sanctimonious characters—especially of the angelic, dutiful-child type often found in nineteenth-century children’s moral stories. Many of these types of characters were created for the sole purpose of teaching a moral and thus are decidedly one-sided and artificial. They have no further interest once they have taught their lesson to the reader. Another flaw in angelic-type characters is often their own unrealistic behaviors and impacts on others. For example, Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while not as unbearable as some other characters, smacks slightly of this—she is a perfect child, sympathetic and kind to all, and everyone seems to come to her with their problems and their praises. And of course, when we get into those characters such as Tom Sawyer’s half-brother Sid who are well-behaved only because of the superiority it gives them over others, the question is not about surface virtue but about underlying pride.
But normally, are we right to reject characters merely because of their piousness? To shed light on the issue, think for a minute about the saints, whom many people can’t stand. The saints were those people who seemed to have everything figured out, who were always obedient, cheerful, and prayerful. In short, they succeeded where many of us have failed. Thus, many of our problems with “perfect” characters and saints come from an acknowledged or unacknowledged jealousy. Don’t we wish we were the person whom everyone admires and holds up as an example? Often the root of our dislike comes from a particular trait, which we then try to belittle. Those people who seem to be always calm and collected, for example, I tend to decry as being “emotionless”. Those who are always obedient and respectful to those in authority over them, I tend to view as “flatterers”.
You see, we often try to pull down those whom we can look up to. We don’t want anyone to be better than ourselves. Or at least, we want assurance that we are doing “pretty well” compared to everyone else. If we fail, we would like everyone else to fail, like the dog in the fable: the dog who tries to prevent the other barn animals from using hay, just because he is unlucky enough not to be able to enjoy hay himself.
When we are confronted with stories of virtuous people, then, we should ask ourselves exactly why they seem to grate on our nerves. Is it because of some lack of skill of the author or storyteller? Is it because of some false reason to hold this person up as an example? Or is it because this person reveals a facet of our own inadequacy to ourselves in a way we would rather not be reminded?
Because the truth is that we do need heroes. We need people to look up to and admire and imitate. We need to learn to accept the good in others without feeling jealous or—from the other end of the spectrum—overly frustrated about ourselves. And the truth is that, when we take the time to notice, many of the characters we may find annoying are actually delightfully human. Captain America, for instance, has felt pain. He has felt the suffering of losing nearly everything from his life. He gets hungry, thirsty, and tired. He goes through temptations and lapses in his own judgment. He has sympathy for his fellow humans. All these qualities make him relatable as a person; he is definitely not alien.
The same goes for the saints. While the holiest of them did not succumb to temptation as often as most other people, they had human qualities and personality flaws. They suffered. They endured temptation. The Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin, suffered in ways we can only imagine but suffered like we do nonetheless. So did her Son, who became man for us. Even He hungered and thirsted in the desert and on the cross. We can look up to others for their holiness or their good qualities while not feeling completely separate from them.
It’s especially important to appreciate our heroes and good role models in this day, when the typical celebrity is into drugs, drinking, and other pursuits which could scarcely be called worthy of emulation. Mainstream characters of the Captain America sort should be well-appreciated–may there be more popular characters like them! For holier role models (and, even better, real ones), we look to the saints, both those canonized and those in our daily lives. For there is no need to be disgusted with virtue when that virtue is true.