Tuesday, December 11, 2012

“Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?”
December 11, 2012

In the midst of the Vietnam War, in 1970, Bill Anderson composed the song, “Where have all our heroes gone?” It is a question that is still being asked. During my growing-up years – the post War into the mid 1950s – there was an abundance of heroes. World War II provided innumerable ones, most of whom never considered themselves heroes. I recall a mechanic who worked in the Ford garage in Peterborough. He was a quiet, unassuming man. My father told me he had been a tail gunner on bombers flying missions out of England over Germany. He was not alone. My father won a Bronze Star for “meritorious service” with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. Yankee stars like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were players I admired, but knew I could never emulate. On the other hand, as a skier, I tried to imitate Toni Sailor and Stein Ericson, but of course could not. However, my Stein Ericson skis, with their long thongs still attached, still hang in my garage. Churchill and Eisenhower were military/political heroes. As a young boy Lincoln represented honesty; Huckleberry Finn, faithfulness, and Davy Crockett, courage. They were all heroes of mine, as were Frank and Joe Hardy, in the eponymous series by Franklin W. Dixon.

We now live in another world at a different time, but the question is still worth asking: Do we still have heroes? And, as important, what is a hero? Scott Allison and George Goethals, writing recently in their 2010 book, Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them, describe a hero as one who is “supremely moral, supremely competent, or both.” Importantly, they note: “heroism is in the eye of the beholder.” Different people have different values and personal preferences, though all heroes have characteristics in common. Ray Cotton of Probe Ministries writes that we need “heroes that last, who walk on earth, and yet have something within them that carries beyond the frustrations and failures of everyday life.” In their book, Allison and Goethals, after polling a number of people, cite eight characteristics, some of which are common to most heroes: smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable and inspiring. I would add honor and moral courage. Actual heroes vary enormously, at least according to a sampling of my seven oldest grandchildren, more of which later.

The absence of heroes, or at least heroic action, has been in the press recently, as the shoving of Ki-Suck Han onto the subway tracks twenty-two seconds before the arrival of an in-bound train, contrasted with a similar incident in 2007, when Wesley Autrey became a hero for saving a man in a similar situation, with a comparable number of seconds before a train entered the station. The death of Mr. Han also reminded us of the killing of Kitty Genovese in 1964, when a number of people ignored her screams for help, and did nothing to prevent her being stabbed to death. While there is little doubt in my mind that I would not have been brave enough to save the unfortunate Mr. Han, the question arises, has society conditioned us to passivity in such instances? In the foreword to the 2006 book, Home Grown Heroes: How to Raise Courageous Kids by Tim Kimmel, Brigadier General and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Joe Foss, writes: “America needs a new generation of heroes…people ruled by a conscience that doesn’t take the Ten Commandments lightly, who have a fundamental reverence for their Creator, and a respect for the people and things He has created.” Society should encourage honor, honesty, morality, civility, compassion and respect.

Amplifying on the theme that heroes have been relegated to a distant past, Christine Ockrent writing a little more than a year ago in the New York Times, complained, “…alas, heroes are nowhere to be found these days.” She noted that in mythological Greece it was tragedy that produced heroes. And, while tragedy continues in abundant supply, she fears heroes have slipped their moorings.

However, conversations with seven of my grandchildren, ages eight through twelve, suggests young people still find those they admire. Their heroes ranged from Taylor Swift and Jorge Posada to Katniss Everdeen (of the Hunger Games) and Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who came in second in the Heisman Trophy voting. All of them included their parents and most, thoughtfully, mentioned their grandparents. The granddaughter who mentioned Mr. Te’o had recently been with her family to South Bend to watch Manti play. But what especially impressed her was his sensitivity expressed in a letter he had written to a young cancer patient. One granddaughter spoke of all veterinarians, and then added Perseus of Greek mythology who was noted for having slain the Medusa. I was very pleasantly surprised when one grandson added Jackie Robinson, a hero of my generation. Fictional characters mentioned, apart from Katniss and Perseus, were Olivia Bean (the trivia queen), Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and his sidekick, Nico di Angelo. Other figures from the world of athletics included Lionel Massi, Devin Hester, Jesus Montero and Robinson Cano.

Notably missing were figures from politics, the military and Hollywood. The President may desire to “transform America” and the Right may claim to be adhering to the principles laid down in the Constitution. Among political figures, my grandchildren are more impressed with giants from the past – Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln – than those who stalk today’s stage. War, fortunately, has not been a factor in their young lives, so the absence of war heroes is understandable; though a couple of my grandsons have been fascinated about reading of their great-grandfather and the 10th Mountain Division. The grandson who named Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen has read all the Potter books and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. It was not Hollywood that caught his attention.

There is an inclination in our culture to promote the antihero. As Allison and Goethals explain, some of the characteristics common to heroes are also present in villains, such as smart and resilient. But the latter tend to be violent, greedy, immoral, egotistical and vengeful. Frank Miniter, writing in National Review, suggests that an anti-hero is one who is unable to distinguish right from wrong – good from evil. He contrasts heroes from the stories of Jack London and Louis L’Amour to characters like Harry Callahan, Jason Bourne and Rambo. Most of us live our lives in a grey zone, accepting minor infractions of law and morality, as a price worth paying for living in a multi-cultural world. Adhering to hard and fast moral judgments is virtually impossible in real life. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for dismissing the importance of moral tales, nor should it diminish our honoring heroic actions. As Mr. Miniter writes, “We again need films about the men and women we want to be. We need stories that might even wake up and inspire…”

The concept of heroes may seem dated and out of sync with today’s cynical world, but I don’t believe that is true. Children want and need heroes and they are abundant. Most heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, like Mr. Autry in 2007 or Mr. Te’o bravely writing to the young patient cancer patient, as his girlfriend was dying of the same dreaded disease. Mayor Cory Booker of Newark displayed extraordinary heroism when, over the objections of his security detail, he recently rescued a woman from the second floor of a burning house. An April 23rd, 1978 newspaper headline reads “Tot, Senior Saved in Fire.” It is the story of how Neil Crespi rushed into a burning house to save the two who otherwise would have died.

A multicultural world that is more focused on relativism and fearful of alienating other cultures can blur the line between right and wrong. Such moral relativism ignores a basic sense of civility (and civility is aligned with morality.) In doing so, we forget the reasons why principles like the Ten Commandments exist. It is not to create a “holier than thou” citizenry; that such rules exist. It is so society can function smoothly. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ take little effort, but their effect is enormous. Stories of heroes help distinguish good from evil. Tales of heroism allow the author to speak not of how the world is, but of how it might be.

Bill Anderson and Ms. Ockrent are wrong; heroes have not gone. They are all around us. We should read more about them. We should honor and respect the moral code they reflect.

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