Discovering the real heroes

Published: January 12, 2007 | 5298th good news item since 2003

On the first day of class in a course at Macon State College, I wanted a short sample of the writing of each student. I picked the subject out of the air: “Write me a few paragraphs about a person you consider a hero.”

The answers turned out to be thought-provoking. A large majority in a class ranging in age from late teens to 40ish selected a close relative. Mothers were the most common, then fathers, sister or brother, a grandparent.

The qualities of a hero? Apparently being helpful, caring, always there when needed and willing to sacrifice one’s own comfort for another. Some were living examples of striving for goals or persistently pushing the writer to do his or her best.

One writer’s hero was his father, a surgeon, who saves lives, prays for his patients and weeps when they die.

Another hero was remembered for a single act: When the writer’s house caught fire, she rescued two of her children but could not get to her baby. A neighbor went back in, climbed burning stairs covered with smoke, and saved her daughter. Today, she said, her former neighbor, a man, is homeless and mentally troubled.

There was only one sports hero, an undersized baseball player from the writer’s home town. He got on a college team only as a walk-on, and the pros weren’t interested. But, said the writer, through determination, belief in himself and trust in God he wound up with two World Series rings, one as MVP. That was 5-foot-7-inch David Eckstein.

By coincidence, I had also been preparing to teach some ancient literature. The adventures of the “heroes” Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus and the like were on my mind. But they were heroes of a very different sort.

According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word “hero” was first used for warriors of noble or royal birth who were especially favored by one god or another, and had superhuman strength. Some came to be regarded as almost-gods themselves.

The Hebrew Bible told of leaders to whom God temporarily gave great strength or wisdom to meet a national crisis. (Sometimes they were called “judges.”)

Later, “hero” came to mean warriors of exceptional – but not superhuman – courage or strength. (It is still used to honor our warriors.)

In time “hero” came to refer to people who led exemplary lives of success and courage. And in our day, it is often used for people, possibly quite ordinary otherwise, who perform some act of strength, courage or sacrifice.

That’s the sense in which New Yorkers Wesley Autrey, Julio Gonzalez and Pedro Nevarez received wide acclaim and publicity as men who took action to save strangers from almost certain death.

Autrey, as everyone knows, jumped onto a subway track and held down a student having a seizure so that the train passed over them harmlessly.

The next day the other two men spotted a diapered infant crawling out on a fire escape four stories above them and positioned themselves to try to catch him. They succeeded.

My students used “hero” for people who performed less spectacular feats, but kept up the long, every day grind of being helping and caring, showing strength, courage and sacrifice in different ways.

Now we also have “superheroes,” people with superhuman powers – like the ancient Greek heroes. They probably began in the comics, with Superman in 1938. Now they dominate comics and Saturday morning cartoons. Unlike the heroes of old, not the gods but some other cause empowered them.

They, too, are supposed to battle the bad guys and prevail. But like the ancient heroes, they are just not like other men and women. They are celebrities and can do things otherwise impossible for human beings.

When we’re kids (and even later), we fantasize about being like these heroes. Then we will be to other people what adults are to children. Beings of superior strength and wisdom can impose their will.

It takes some living to understand who the real heroes are.

Published in Family, Heroes
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