Heroes: They’re Not Just For Mythology Anymore

Posted by on 05.01.08 | 2 Comments
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“You are the hero who doesn’t get it right,” wrote the boy. “You are the hero who forgets things and shows up late.”

I loved it. There is something marvelous about embracing a flawed hero. It gives us permission to believe that we too might be courageous defenders, contributors to the greater good despite our own myriad flaws.

Even in my flip flops? Even when I’m exhausted and want to whine? Even when the most politically active thing I do is vote in the general election?

Of course we can be heroes, warts on our toes and all. Recall how Achilles, the greatest, most handsome and quickest warrior in the fight against Troy, had a bum foot.

Just because we’re average doesn’t mean we can’t be a hero somehow.

Joseph Campbell once defined heroes as people who give their lives to something bigger than themselves. This might be parenting. Teaching adaptive skiing. Pulling noxious weeds from the banks of the San Miguel. Or as we saw at Talking Gourds last weekend, performing poems about rising from abuse and neglect.

According to Wikipedia, a hero, in Greek mythology, was “originally a demigod, the offspring of a mortal and a deity. Later, hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters that, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice, that is, heroism, for some greater good, originally of martial courage or excellence but extended to more general moral excellence.”

There are no demigods. But there are lots of people trying to make a difference.

Here’s one way we might define a hero. Confronted with the idea that “The world is in a downward spiral,” how would a person answer the question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The answer, I think, determines whether or not that person has heroic qualities. We can look at heroism again through Joseph Cambell’s lens, one in which he defines two types of heroic deeds. There’s the physical, in which a hero performs a courageous act and saves a life. And then there are spiritual deeds, in which the hero experiences the supernormal range of human life and then returns to the community with a message (a lesson, a gift, an idea) to share.

What is the gift that you bring to your community? How can you follow your own passion, delve into new ways of seeing, and share what you learn?

I sure did learn a lot about what a hero is this week in Lake City doing a poetry residency at the small school there. Only 65 kids in the whole system, k-12, and to kick off the program we did a family poetry night, playing with words across the generations.

I shared with them a poem by Dorianne Laux, “Oh, The Water,” which begins this way:

You are the hero of this poem,

the one who leans into the night

and shoulders the stars, smoking

a cigarette you’ve sworn is your last

before reeling the children into bed.

And then they wrote poems to each other, and some to people not in the room, exploring the ways in which our friends and family members might be everyday heroes, tackling the troubles of the to-do list, tending scrapes, soothing hurt feelings, paying the bills, and getting nutritious food on the table.

As they lauded each other, it got me to thinking about all the heroes in my life—the poets who help me see the world in new ways. My husband who daily tends 20,000 fruit trees organically. My mother who travels with me to watch my son so I might teach in Lake City for two weeks. Jim at the post office who hangs photos of local children and families behind his desk and has an unceasing smile. My father who gives money anonymously to people who need it.

In some way, all of these people impact the lives of others. In their wake, they leave positive change.

They don’t do it for money, for recognition, for pay backs, for fear. They do it because they are drawn to contribute to the greater good. They want to be, as the Indo-European root of the word would suggest, “protectors” of wonder, of love, of possibility.

As one boy wrote to an older man in the group, “You are the hero I want to know better, the one I have seen but never got to meet.”

How many heroes do we walk by every day, disguised as strangers in the street?

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