So, who’s your favorite superhero? When I was young I was always partial to The Shadow. I had forgotten all about him until recently when, late at night, the 1994 film of that name with Alec Baldwin was showing on one of the gazillion stations I pay for but don’t usually watch. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” Great stuff.
When I was a little older I gave up The Shadow once I saw Lynda Carter’s cleavage on TV’s Wonder Woman.
Then I gave up on superheroes altogether. Real life just seemed to overpower them somehow. Unless you lived in Metropolis or Gotham City they were never around when you needed them anyway, and you were stuck cleaning up your own mess.
But I never completely gave up on super powers. I always thought it would be great to have super powers. The ability to cloud men’s minds and become invisible like the Shadow would have been very handy for getting out of any number of faculty meetings I was forced to attend. Or I can think of a number of public officials and school children who could have used the ability to ward off bullets like Wonder Woman.
If you have a super power, though, you’re halfway to being a super hero, and I’m not sure I want any part of that. I am definitely not the hero of my own life. I doubt that many of us are. Did you ever see a super hero pay a mortgage bill, fill out a 1040, or spend the night hugging a commode with a bout of the flu. You don’t feel much like a hero while hugging the porcelain fixture and praying that you’ve got the right end facing the bowl. We know too much about the intimate details of our own lives to think of ourselves as heroes, super or otherwise.
The one thing I’ve noticed about people whom the press has deigned to call “hero,” though, is that they don’t see themselves that way at all. How many times have you read that the hero of the hour said, “I just did what I had to do,” or “I just did what was right”?
Sometimes they were just doing their job. Firefighters become heroes by pulling small children and cats out of burning buildings. That’s part of their job. I wouldn’t want to do it, but that’s what they are trained for and what they get paid for.
Chesley Sullenberger landed flight 1549 safely in the Hudson River. He’s a trained pilot and he did his job very, very well. He saved the lives of everyone onboard.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I wish to take nothing away from the brave and sometimes selfless acts of individuals. When a fireman risks his life to get another human being out of an inferno, he deserves our respect and admiration plus whatever accolades we can heap on him to show that respect and admiration. What Captain Sully did was an awesome display of courage and skill and he deserves any and all benefits that have come his way as a result. But when it comes down to it, these people were just doing their jobs. They happen to have jobs where they are responsible for the lives of other people, though, and when things go badly we get reminded of that.
At other times heroes are just people who were at the wrong (or sometimes right) place at the right (or sometimes wrong) time. A woman is jogging along a lakeside path and sees a man drowning. She jumps in and pulls him out, saving his life. That’s not her job. From one perspective, that is a selfless act of bravery. She didn’t have to do that, did she? Apparently she thought she did.
On the other hand, sometimes things don’t work quite that way. Gamble Rogers, a talented musician and story teller, and someone I knew personally, was swimming and went to the aid of a drowning man back in 1991. He drowned in the attempt.
Both of these people were hailed as heroes. The woman was given a ceremony and a plaque. Gamble got a park named after him. Both did what they thought they had to, what they thought was right. It worked out better in one case than in the other.
Heroes don’t create themselves. We create them for ourselves. We find in them proof that there is good in the world. And in these times we desperately need to believe there is good in the world. That’s why super hero movies are so popular right now and it’s why we have always held ceremonies honoring those among us who show bravery and courage doing what they felt that had to do.
We are a deeply divided and often bitter nation, but we have not lost faith in our heroes. We cannot lose faith in them precisely because we create them so that we will not lose faith. We create them because we need to be reminded that there is still good, that there is still right, that amidst all we feel is wrong with our world, there is still hope. And with hope, there is still a chance.
There is still a chance that we can turn things around. There is still a chance that, somehow, the spreading shadow of Mount Doom can be halted by a few brave men and women who make a last desperate stand against all the odds and do the right thing. Not us, of course. We are not heroes. But there are heroes. We know there are heroes. They are out there. We read about them. They are firemen rushing up the stairs of the Twin Towers or airline pilots making amazing landings or housewives jogging or musicians swimming, but they are there and we need them because without them, where would we be? Who would be left?
There would just be us. There would just be commode-hugging, mortgage-paying us. And if that’s true, all is lost, isn’t it?
We sell ourselves so short.
Do you suppose that Captain Chesley Sullenberger never paid a mortgage, filled out a tax form, or spent an awkward night in the bathroom? Or that the housewife thought she was Aquawoman? I know Gamble never considered himself a hero. They … all of them …are just us. They are just us faced with extraordinary situations to which they responded as best they could. We did the rest.
Who is to say that we wouldn’t have done the same thing? Who is to say that we will not, when the time comes, do the right thing? Others will handle the hero part. None of them set out to be heroes. None of us will either. .
There are heroes all around us that we never place on pedestals. The electrical inspector who catches faulty wiring in a high rise and saves hundreds of lives by having it repaired, isn’t he a hero? The butcher who throws out the pork chops that may have been in the display case too long, cutting into his profits, but perhaps saving a good deal of commode hugging, isn’t he a hero? The school cafeteria dietician who stops serving greasy fried food and replaces it with something healthier, isn’t she a hero?
The press didn’t think so. The circumstances weren’t extraordinary enough for them to gain front page status.
How about the heart surgeon who saves lives every day of the week? Or the family doctor who catches that lump on your neck? Well that’s their job, right? And you have to be brave to be a hero. What’s brave about opening a person’s chest and slicing into their heart knowing you hold that person’s life in your hands?
What about the father that works three jobs so that his children can be the first in the family to go to college? The single mother who puts herself through school while raising her kids alone, isn’t she a hero? They certainly should be to their kids.
The fact is, we are all of us someone’s hero. We probably don’t know it… may never know it. And that’s a shame.
We are all heroes whether we see ourselves that way or not. Unless we give up. Unless we lose hope. Once we lose hope we can no longer create heroes. Once we lose hope we can no longer be heroes. What’s the use? The whole world is going to hell in a hand basket and will be hit by an asteroid on May 17th anyway.
There is only one super power, and that’s the power to maintain hope in the face of everything else. And if you have hope in the face of all you feel is wrong in your life and in the world, I guarantee you, you are brave.
But if you give up, you only add your weight to the shadow growing over Mordor. Your candidate didn’t win the presidential election? Stop displaying the American flag. It’s no longer your country, right or wrong. Lost your job because of the economy? Don’t vote any longer because of what those bastards in Washington did to you. The old Dodge finally gave up the ghost? Sit at home and sulk because the fates have deigned to make you an invalid.
If you insist on seeing it that way, there is evil everywhere you look. You have three choices: succumb, resist, or try to ignore it. You can’t ignore it forever. Eventually the shadow will creep over the faraway Shire and engulf you. If you succumb, you become part of the darkness. You lose all hope and immerse yourself in despair. No hero can help you because you’ve lost all interest in creating them so they can. If you resist, you are, by definition, brave. You are a hero, believe it or not.
Aragorn, the handsome king who returns, is not the hero of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It isn’t Gandolf, the great wizard, either. The army amassed before the gate is a diversion, not those who save the realm. Neither is the ring-bearer, the little, hairy-toed hobbit, Frodo the true hero. The real hero is seemingly the least among them all, Sam Gamgee, the Baggins’ gardener, Samwise the Brave as Frodo calls him.
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
And that’s a hero, plain and simple. There was no evil that could cause Sam Gamgee to lose hope. And the shadow knows.
Your Humble Servant,
The Willowbrook Curmudgeon