Polio. The word is associated with my earliest memories of real terror.
I could see the look on my mother’s face when Los Angeles summers arrived, with those big crowds of children and the swimming pools. Shaking her head, she would contemplate whether she should risk allowing me to join in. She remembered, after all, FDR, the great hero in his braces and wheelchair. My four-year-old’s mind couldn’t understand the details, but I knew that Polio was a terrible disease, that it made kids unable to walk, and that they had to wear braces and use crutches forever. Some of them were imprisoned in claustrophobic and terrible Iron Lungs and would die of asphyxiation if they left.
The Polio epidemic, a feared killer of middle-class children, was halted by a vaccine developed by scientists when I was a preschooler; and for me, getting my Polio shot conferred a palpable sense of relief. The shot, and the oral version developed a little later, were named for the scientists who developed them, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. I saw these men as my knights in shining armor.
I’m a child of the Space Race. Many of the great events of my childhood prominently featured scientists. In my early school years, in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik, the splashy conflict of the day was fought out by, literally, rocket scientists, who (were we to believe the propaganda), saved the world, and America, from the Soviet threat to conquer Outer Space.
These formative events instilled in me a mental archetype of the Scientist-as-Hero, a Great Person who would wield knowledge and data to defeat the greatest of villains and scourges, following which he (this archetype is inherently male) would modestly deflect all the credit. Despite the intervening decades, the archetype has stuck with me, coloring my unseen frames of reference. I recognize that this archetype perhaps biases my perceptions; yet in my gut I feel convinced that my own frame of reference is “right.”
These thoughts of hero-archetypes and how they might create bias first came to me last summer, as I was crossing the United States on a summer road trip with two dear companions. In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (pronounced “Core dee Lane,” according to the locals), the newspaper splashed an article across the front page about a growing Survivalist community. The article praised the inland Northwest as a place where Rugged Individualists can defend their families against the federal government with its villainous taxes. Earlier the same day, we had departed southern Whidbey Island, Washington, best described as a haven for aging hippies. The contrast between these two worlds seemed extreme and jarring, and likely to have created in their communities very different hero-archetypes. I recalled that in Los Angeles, I had gone to the Will Rogers museum where I had encountered another popular hero-archetype: the cowboy, a lonesome horseman and strong silent type who rode the dry canyons, lassoing calves, capturing “bad men” and saving damsels in distress. The Cowboy was not my hero-archetype, but he was the hero of many in my generation. Taking it all in as we travelled, it struck me that these hero-archetypes seem as fundamentally “right” to others as my own Scientist archetype seems to me.
It has made me wonder: does my hero-archetype ground me in truth, or doom me to bias? Does having a hero-archetype hold me back from making deeper connections with others? How much do unconscious archetypes of heroes and villains explain political affiliations and governmental gridlock? Do we have to give up our own deeply held hero-archetypes to have a more objective perspective on the world?
These are questions which, it seems to me, are central to Unitarian Universalism, a religion which — like America itself — strives to solve the riddle of how to be a single, united, beloved community of unique minds, hearts, and spirits. Is it possible that, by learning about the hero-archetypes of others, the experiences that led to their adoption, and the meanings of these hero-archetypes in the lives of those who hold them, we might better promote and affirm our faith’s first principle, respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all persons? Might our individual searches for truth might be advanced by the effort? I think it’s worth a try.