The word "hero" is bandied about quite freely today. And that's unfortunate because it dilutes the true meaning for the deserving. Sports players are not heroes. Neither are public officials, entertainers, or anyone else simply doing their jobs. Certainly there are times when their job performance is commendable, noteworthy, or even at times courageous. But that doesn't make a person a hero.
The latest episode with Lance Armstrong follows other sports and political figures who have fallen from the pedestal we put them on, which makes us question how this could happen to our "heroes." The reality is they were never heroes in the truest sense. They were, in some cases, outstanding achievers in a field most of us could never attain, yet we fantasize that this could be us. But it seems in a world where people need someone to look up to or to admire, we look for the glamour stars in such areas as sports, entertainment, and government which receive an overabundance of media attention. The more medals or awards they get, the more we start describing these people as heroes. And when their character faults are revealed, people are devastated. How quickly dreams of a hall of fame turn into a hall of shame.
What is the real meaning of a hero? For most it means someone who willingly places his life in jeopardy to aid another in grave danger. It's the policemen and firefighters who charged into the burning World Trade Center, not the guy who scores four touchdowns. It's the teachers at Newtown, Conn. who tried to protect the children, not the guy who wins a bike race. It's the soldier who protects his fellow soldier, not the politician who gets elected or gets his bill passed.
There is a difference between a heroic act and being a hero. We hear of people who heroically battle an illness. This means that they put up the good fight to the end. Or when Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed the plane in the Hudson River. Yes, that was a heroic moment, but Sully never saw himself as a hero. We used to call our astronauts heroes. Hero status used to be reserved for only those life-and-death situations. Heroes were the people who show the greatest love for another human being by giving or risking their life for another or voluntarily facing a situation of grave risk for the benefit of others.
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There are a lot of good people doing good deeds to help their fellow citizens on this planet. Bill Gates has done as much as anyone to help promote better health but he's not called a hero. There are many philanthropists who believe in helping the less fortunate but they don't consider themselves heroes. There are teachers teaching, doctors healing, pastors saving, and many others who are not considered heroes and would never want someone putting that moniker on them.
We've seen what happens when we bestow hero status on someone who has neither earned it nor can handle it. Their egos explode. Their cockiness becomes unbearable. Their self importance becomes repulsive. And when that happens, people begin hoping that they crash. They are just very good at doing a few things that have little meaning, and even then for a short period of time.
Maybe the problem is that we don't teach enough about heroism and what makes a hero. Maybe we are using the wrong people as examples. If every child dreams of being a hero one day, what's the role model of heroism that we are showing children? What does it take to be a hero and why is being a hero different than being a star at something?
Maybe in the end, a hero is in the eyes of the beholder and it's not really about being in a life or death situation or taking on the grave risk for others' benefit. Maybe it's just the person whom you admire the most. For some, it's their father, mother, or grandparent. To others it can be the doctor who saved their life or the person who donated an organ. Maybe it's the person who believed in your dream and cheered you on. Maybe it's the person whom you credit for making your dream come true. Perhaps it's the person who set the example for you on the meaning of life and that it's more important to love than to be loved.
In light of the recent events where we have seen new heroes rise up and old heroes fall, maybe this would be a good time to start teaching our children something about heroism: a profiles in heroism course that focuses on how ordinary people turn into extraordinary people. How hero status isn't something you are born into, or something you can chart on your career path, or something you can buy, or something you can medically turn yourself into.
Heroism is really about character.
True heroes are givers not takers. For the true heroes it is about who they serve, not how great they look serving. It's about what they did, not who they are. It's not about glamour but humility.
The heroes for 2012 are the teachers from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Few, if any, even come close to the heroism they showed. They should have been Time's Persons of the Year. No one deserved that more than they did. No one.
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