When you’re a kid you want to be your heroes. You want to be the soldier storming the beaches and charging up the hill, guns blazing. You want to be the knight jousting for the favor of a fair lady. Maybe you want to be the astronaut strapping into a space capsule and rocketing into space. I wanted to be all of those things and more when I was a kid. One of the painful facts of life is that most of us don’t become our heroes. One of my favorite quotes from the movie Master and Commander sums it up: “The simple truth is, not all of us become the men we once hoped we might be.” That’s a hard fact of life, but one we all have to make our peace with.
I think that one of the challenges in growing up is not to be crushed by disillusionment. Without getting into excruciating detail, I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have done and been some some pretty cool, interesting and sometimes terrifying things and places. So I think I took a lot longer than most people to be disillusioned by life. Or maybe I just had too many illusions to begin with. In either case, I can be a sarcastic person with a pretty jaded view of humanity as a result .
Given this outlook, I’ve spent some time reflecting on why it is that I have heroes. If I’m honest with myself, despite my jaundiced eye on life, I actually want to be proven wrong. I think that as I grow older I know that I’m not going to be these people. That is to say, I’m not going to do what they did. I have had the amazing good fortune to meet some of my heroes and to get to know them as regular people. Part of what makes someone heroic is not only what they’ve done, but also who they are. As an adult I have heroes because they make me want to be a better person, to cultivate and display the qualities of their character in my own life.
I want to believe that people are better than the evidence would seem to indicate. Often life teaches you to expect the worst of people, and to be pleasantly surprised if they are better than that. My heroes teach me that if they can be better people, then I can too, but not by being perfect. To see them as that would be hero worship, and unfair. In the past I think we made heroes out of people too easily and took pains to hide the unlovely parts of someone’s personality. Today we are just the opposite and the media and Internet take delight in deflating people who are branded as heroes. I think both approaches cause us to lose something. To me, people are heroes not because they are perfect, but despite the fact that they are not.
One of the chief things I find heroic is courage. I am moved when I see it displayed. Many times courage is not something that is observable like carrying a child from a burning building. Sometimes it is a quiet struggle that no one sees, and no one knows about but you. An example is the show Hoarders on A&E. It’s a show about people who, for one reason or another can’t throw things away, or who can’t stop buying things and fill their houses with them to the point that they can no longer live in them. Many times the arc of the story they are telling shows these people having to clean through their stuff. It’s often very hard for them to throw something away or agree to donate things, and they really struggle with it, but do it anyway. Sometimes I find that moving. Instinctively you want to say “jeez, just throw that stuff away, and be rid of it.” But it’s not that easy for them because they are struggling with a very strong and compulsive disorder, which causes them a lot of emotional turmoil. To push yourself to face that, even a little, takes courage in my mind, and strength. It shows us that there are people and moments which transcend the normal, cynical humdrum life we lead. And that heroism isn’t just demonstrated on the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of Viet Nam or the sands of Iraq. It’s shown in neighborhoods, and streets and homeless shelters; on the subway and in restaurants. They challenge us to see through and to rise above, and to remember that in order to for the world to be better we must be better ourselves.