In my Memorial Day message I reflected on our revered heroes in uniform. Let me now focus on the heroes among us.
Recently I spoke at a Toastmasters meeting that had as its theme, “The Hero in All of Us”. My talk was titled “We are All More than We Seem”. A fact not self evident to many in our midst. As I observed, many believe that there is a shortage of heroes, but I don’t. As I told my audience, if you are looking for heroes you need look no further than the closest cubicle at work, the house next door…the folks around your dinner table. The fact is that most heroes, saints included, come from the most common of backgrounds- Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, Mother Teresa, the list is endless! Their early station in life provided not a clue on their impending place in history.
In my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace ( Chapel Hill Press 2008 ) I explore the subject of heroes. What spawned my interest was a newspaper article announcing that two “ordinary” men had saved a crippled woman who was trapped in a burning building. The reporter proclaimed that the men were now heroes. Here is some of what I wrote.
“I guess the reporter concluded that their heroic act caused a transformation to occur, lifting them from a state of ordinariness to a higher worldly status compared to the rest.”
But were the two men at one time ordinary? No, not ever!
“Ordinary people” I wrote, “are to heroes as caterpillars are to butterflies. Each of us is prepared to rise far past anything expected when destiny calls.
That’s why heroes are not foreordained. Did not the September 11th tragedy teach us this lesson? I recently heard then-Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, say that “Heroic acts are instinctual. They are carried out by ordinary people who are to their very fiber anything but ordinary.” Heroes are self-taught. Have you ever heard of anyone being apprenticed to a professional hero? As a result, Will Rogers says, “Heroing is one of the shortest-lived professions there is.” Why? True heroes don’t need the job. That’s the difference between a hero and a superstar or celebrity—they do need the acclaim, and some even seek notoriety. But heroes are on a different track. As James Bradley explains, “True heroes have a powerful impulse to community. Celebrities or superstars have spent their days trying to align their star above the community, not within it.”
According to Henry Kissinger the distinction between heroes and superstars is cultural: “Superstars strive for approbation; heroes walk alone. Superstars crave consensus; heroes define themselves by the judgment of a future they see as their task to bring about. Superstars seek success in a technique for eliciting support; heroes pursue success as the outgrowth for their inner values” (New York Times Book Review, 16 July 1995, rev. Churchill: The Unruly Giant , by Norman Rose). “
After being named commander of the revolutionary army George Washington was lionized by the men and women fighting for their independence. Yet letters that Washington wrote to his friend Joseph Reed contained plaintive passages from a man who would have gladly given up his responsibility, and the accolades to another. Instead he longed to return to his home in Virginia. Of course Washington did no such thing. Perhaps that is why one of the most ennobling characteristics of heroes is that they really don’t want the job!