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Between the Lines: Where Are the Heroes?

Maybe they’re closer than you think.

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Thursday, November 01, 2012

When I was a boy, my bedroom was plastered with posters: a day-glo illustration of the Beatles from Yellow Submarine; a prehistorically pouting Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.; Clark Gable, chewing on a cigar and scrutinizing a poker hand in Gone With the Wind. I was a fan of them all.

But the poster I remember best was a giant photograph of Robert F. Kennedy. To me, Bobby wasn’t glamorous like a movie star or mod like the Fab Four. He was much more than that. He was my hero.

When I recall the things I admired most about Kennedy—his fire, his faith, his Quixote-like tilt against racial injustice—I’m reminded that it’s hard to find heroes like that anymore, especially during an election season.

These days, we’re far less discriminating about what constitutes heroism. We live in an age of perpetual fast-forward—a world in which Americans are instantly transformed into Idols in a mad crush of switchboard-jamming telephone calls; where anybodies become somebodies overnight simply because they land in an outrageous story in Us Weekly. We’ve confused heroics with histrionics.

And when we do find genuine heroes in our midst, we too often dispose of them indiscriminately. Just two months ago, headlines were dominated simultaneously by two heroes—ironically, both named Armstrong— and their star tracks could not have been more different. One of them had made history by being the first human to plant his foot on the moon, an astounding feat that defined him for the next 43 years. The other rode to fame atop a bicycle, then watched his legacy crash and crumble in less than a dozen years in the wake of a doping scandal. Far too many, including Nike, have written off Lance Armstrong as if his truest heroics—raising nearly a half a billion dollars to fight cancer—didn’t matter anymore. Heroism is a perilously fragile business.

And yet, don’t we encounter heroes, up close, every day? Isn’t there someone in all of our lives whose character imprints on us the same awe we feel when we read about patriotic glory? For me, heroism is not only about accomplishment, but also the gentle dignity that accompanies it. If that is indeed the standard, my life is filled with heroes.

I’m thinking of my friend Wendy, who, despite recurring health issues, routinely shuttles back and forth between New York and Maryland so that she can care for her ailing mom — and she does it all with an aura of uplift and joy. That to me is heroism.

I’m thinking of the kids I’ve met from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis—beautifully bald little boys and girls who stare down terrifying, critical illnesses with an optimistic buoyancy that belies their age. Heroes, all of them.

I’m thinking of the college friend who in recent years shipped off her child—a hero himself—to Afghanistan, beaming with pride at the nobility of his military service while secretly biting back her paralyzing fear for his safety. Imagine how many American families exercise that same heroism every day.

I’m thinking of the civil rights attorney I met in April, whose practice does not reap the riches of, say, corporate law, but instead the inner reward of serving the underprivileged, whether it’s a grieving mother who lost a child to inner city gunfire, or a prisoner who lost his freedom—and voice—at Guantanamo Bay. That’s heroic.

And I’m thinking of a 14-year-old girl I know, whose father—a dear friend of mine—took his own life in mid-August. Staggered by the loss, she managed to pull the pieces together in just three days so she could begin the new school year with her friends. And when she eventually reemerged on Facebook—as all children do—she had changed her profile picture to one that featured her standing at her daddy’s side. In her caption, she quoted Dr. Seuss: “‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’ I miss you, dad.” If courage, equanimity and grace are the hallmarks of heroism, this child is the most heroic hero I know—and I want to be just like her some day.

So, no, I don’t have to wait for another Bobby Kennedy to emerge in the news. If I’m looking for heroes—real heroes—I can meet them daily, because they’re so often right in front of me.

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