It seems to me, and I fear, that we have lost the ability to look for and select real heroes these days. We all need heroes – those role models whom we aspire to emulate, be like, and respect. Their experiences and influence become a basis for our own personal journey and a degree of self-education. More importantly, those we seek to emulate need to have a positive influence on us. I think we have become a society that uses the word “hero” too freely, in too many situations.
The dictionary defines a hero as:
“a man or woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities.”
“a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.”
“a warrior or chieftain of special strength courage, or ability”
As a parent I believe that we should always attempt to be heroes for our children. As parents we provide that first contact, that ability to direct our children on the path of the people they will develop into. I hope that I am a hero for my children and have provided them the core values they need to be not only successful but also kind, compassionate adults. To me, however, this is expected. It is called parenting and part of what we need to do. I really am more concerned with those influences from outside our immediate first-hand sphere of influence.
As a child my hero was Abraham Lincoln. Recently on a survey I was asked who my hero was – the answer – still Abraham Lincoln. Was he outside my sphere of influence? Yes. He died 100 years, 4 months, and 16 days before I was born. The traits that I admire in Abraham Lincoln are numerous, and this in and of itself may be why he remains such a hero for me. He rose from a poor, rural farm life. He worked hard to survive and help support his family and yet he found time to read and self-educate. He went on to become a lawyer. He entered politics and failed, yet he got up and tried again, and again. Ultimately he became the President during what was the worst time of war our country has ever seen, the Civil War. Death threats, starting before he even reached Washington DC for his inauguration didn’t stop him. He survived the grief of the loss of his beloved son Willie in 1863. He struggled with a demanding and fearful wife who struggled with mental illness. He opposed the oppression of human beings based on their race and skin color. He oversaw the bloodiest conflict our country has even seen and guided the nation through it, only to finally lose his life to an assassin in the closing days of the war. He guided. He persevered. He never gave up. His actions had effects that we still feel today.
Where I have grown concerned is in two groups of individuals. The first are our adolescents. So many kids no longer look up to teachers, coaches, athletes and writers/scholars. They have tuned into “reality show” junkies and seem to try to relate more to Keeping Up with the Kardashians, 16 and Pregnant, and The Real Housewives of… (fill in your favorite city here). I have watched some of these shows with my teenaged daughter because I wanted to see what they were about. I am appalled that as the American public we allow these shows, proffering their false sense of how we should live our lives, to air. Are these the kinds of people we wish our children to emulate? Do they fit the definition of what a hero is? I don’t think they do. I would rather see these kids strive to achieve the goals and success of Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, or Fred Rogers. These individuals showed how to succeed in their given fields, but equally, how to return that success to the communities and organizations that are significant to them.
The other group is that of our young adults, college students, and recent college grads. In the age of social media with pages such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, I wonder how much of their “hero worship” has been turned not to people who have accomplished great deeds, but those who have generated great wealth. Without a doubt, some great and successful business people have also supported community groups, charities, and other noble causes. But many more live their lives for no other purpose than to create personal wealth and further their own interests. Now that certainly is their right, but are they heroes? Simply, No. What are their brave and noble deeds? What is their heroic act?
I am reminded of the story of Ernest Shackleton. An Antarctic explorer, he faced unparalleled danger when in February 1915 his ship, Endurance, became trapped in the Antarctic ice. For months he led his men and kept them alive while awaiting the ship to be freed with the spring thaw. Instead, the Endurance was crushed in the ice and sank. Rather than give up, Shackleton continued to lead his men, to keep their spirits up, and to guide them in their survival. Finally, in April of 1916, he and a small handful of his men, set sail in a 20-foot life boat in an attempt to reach South Georgia island and bring back help. Despite the hundreds of miles of ocean they had to cross, they did it. Shackleton’s men were rescued and he didn’t lose a single man.
To me, Abraham Lincoln and Ernest Shackleton represent the kind of individuals I would like to see more people look up to as heroes. Faced with daunting obstacles they persisted and persevered, they led others, they inspired, motivated, and placed their personal safety above that of others. They fit the definitions of what a hero should be.
As members of society, we need to be careful about how we bandy about a word like hero. It is a powerful word. It does carry significant meaning. I think we have come to use it too often for too many things, and I worry if the true strength and power of the word will weaken. While I strongly support and am thankful for the men and women of our armed forces, that doesn’t make them all heroes; but during a time of war, such as now, we seem to hear the word used as a general descriptor for every service member when they return home. I absolutely do not want to diminish any service members’ role, but for me the “hero” is the soldier who throws himself on the grenade and saves four others. It is an act of utter and complete selflessness, decided in less than the flutter of a mosquito’s wing that creates the hero. Equally, as a member of law enforcement I do not believe that all law enforcement officers are heroes. They are out there though. The ones who buy and deliver Christmas dinner to a family in their area they know can’t afford it. Those who take the time to work with at-risk youth on their own time and guide them in a better direction. These are our heroes. Selfless, noble, courageous people. People who don’t think about what has to be done as much as just get it done.
I am hopeful for a future where we all reevaluate and think about the inspirational people in our lives – our heroes. What made them that way? What draws us to their charisma or fullness of heart? Their strength and courage? Their noble bearing? Then, how can we apply the best of those traits in our own daily lives. Let’s make our heroes members of an elite club again.