By now even many people who didn’t watch the Oscars have seen or heard Matthew McConaughey’s acceptance speech for Best Actor. The Texas actor thanked God for all the opportunities in his life, thanked God some more (cut to Academy members squirming in their seats), and then he told a story about when he was a teenager and was asked who his hero was.
The answer he gave at the time: his hero was Matthew McConaughey in ten years. Then when he was asked the same question ten years later, he gave the same answer: himself in ten years; and so on and so on throughout his life because, as he explained, he’ll never achieve the ideal he was striving for, but the important thing is to aspire to the heroic ideal and chase after it.
It’s easy to make fun of this: an apparently narcissistic actor picking his future self as his hero, thanking God while being infamous for the wild oats he has sown, and drifting into theological incoherence at certain points in his speech. And while all that may be worth noting, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
McConaughey and his wife have been seen attending church together, both near their home in Austin and at the Cannes Film festival. And his acceptance speech begged a question from any Academy audience member alert enough to notice: By what standard is McConaughey defining the heroic? He’s not defining it by his actual future self, since each time he arrives ten years later, he’s not yet his hero. There’s some other standard he’s using as a template for envisioning the future hero he aspires to be. What is that template?
Perhaps he’s looking into the moral law within, the one responsible for every culture in history celebrating courage over cowardice, as C.S. Lewis famously argued in his case against moral relativism. Or since the actor went out of his way to thank God, was raised a Methodist, and has been attending Mass with his wife, his heroic ideal might even have lurking behind it someone more personal—the one man in history ever to perfectly embody the heroic ideal.
Either way, the heroic ideal is grounded in the divine, and that’s something McConaughey and the rest of us can spend a lifetime chasing after and still have more greatness to strive for. There’s also encouragement in knowing that the hound of heaven is chasing after us, offering us a richer freedom than the empty liberty of impulse and appetite that Hollywood generally celebrates.
The startling truth is this: Just about anyone can do great things, can live a life that's remarkable, purposeful, excellent, and yes, even heroic. If you want to be a hero, you can be.