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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Heroes

As I ride through the Himalayas, a recent email and the death of Bobby Fischer has had me thinking about heroes. To me a hero has been someone to inspire me, someone to appreciate, and someone to emulate on the path to success. As someone with a driven personality, I have always been attracted to people with a single minded determination to be the best at something. Unfortunately, I have often in my life misplaced my faith in heroes who have let me down.

When I was six Bobby Fischer had just captured the imagination of the International community by beating Boris Spassky in a Cold War showdown to win the World Chess Championship, the only American to ever do so. With bold style, flair, and idiosyncratic behavior it seemed he single handedly slayed the methodical Russian Bear with American passion and determination. I was a bit of a chess prodigy, and had my picture on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer playing chess with the express dream to play my hero Mr. Fischer someday. It has been with sadness that I have followed his career over the years, with his paranoia and anti-Jewish, anti-American rants leaving it hard to feel even respect for his remarkable skills. In the end, just sympathy for him having a brilliant mind but being unable to understand much about the world as he passed is all I felt.

Next came the baseball years, and as a young boy growing up in Ohio, that meant Pete Rose. Pete was also single mindedly obsessed, albeit with singles. I read every article I could get about him, how he wasn’t physically that impressive (like me) but he worked really hard to learn to switch hit, and how he also wanted to be the greatest hitter ever. Now a chess and numbers nerd, I could calculate his batting average from the daily boxscores, and I hand made a t-shirt with “Rose 14” on the back which I wore while teaching myself to switch hit through playing whiffle ball. “Charlie Hustle” as he was nicknamed by Mickey Mantle, only knew one speed: full throttle. That meant trying as hard as you can, as long as you can at everything you do, an admirable quality to emulate for a young boy. However, as we all know that tendency to excess led him down dark paths of gambling and lying that led to his disgrace.

Of course, every boy’s real hero is his father and I was no different. I had to be the best at physics, math, and science because I had to go to MIT just like him, the best school in the world. There was no second choice. This hero worship continued on despite our family breakup, where I and my siblings were essentially abandoned by him for 50 weeks of the year and then treated for 2 weeks in the summer to make up for it. My idolatry only really changed for him once I moved in with him and his new wife and children. I was essentially a burden to them, was turned off by their shallowness, materialism and racism. I was told expressly “You will never be anything without us.” Those words inspire me to this day, but only as an extreme example of what a hero is not and to prove them wrong. At 17, I left never to return.

In high school I was shielded from my repressive father and step-mother (couldn’t play with the chess team because they were the “wrong” crowd, couldn’t serve as a Congressional page because I would give them a bad name in Washington, etc.) and shepherded through difficult times to college by my Jesuit priest Principal whose acts of kindness and understanding towards others I saw all the time. I thought if I ever got married I wanted him to perform the ceremony, and to let him know how I thought of him as a father figure and a hero. As my wedding day approached, I learned that he had been removed from a college presidency due to allegations of improper relationships during the time I was at his school. I wrote to him to reach out, but he disappeared to deal with his demons.

I received that email from a friend calling me a hero, high praise indeed, but undeserved. I am someone who follows his dreams and who hopes to inspire others to follow their dreams as well. I have found that people who pursue their dreams are among the happiest, most interesting and most satisfied people I meet, regardless of how much money or success they have had, or even if they are still pursuing that original dream. Sad are the people who never venture to chase their aspirations.

We want to have heroes, perfect people, to look up to and to lead us to the Promised land. Conversely, we also like to put people on pedestals to tear them down. I am yet to see any politician heroes, maybe Gandhi was the last one and even in India we found some people who were not impressed. I lost my hero worship of sports figures during the baseball strike, or the moving of the Cleveland Browns, or of the cheating for and by athletes I saw in high school, or perhaps finally the complicity of the sports reporters not to write about the obvious steroid era in all sports over the last 20 years.

I do, however, see heroes as I pass through the world and this life. They are common people doing ordinary and sometimes extra-ordinary things. I see parents everywhere doing their best to be those heroes for their children. To get them the best education they can afford, to teach them all they have learned about life, realizing that it may not be enough. I see the look in their face of desire and love to be the best they can be, not for themselves but for their children, to shield them from the pain, the disappointment, and the corruption that they have experienced. I also catch in reflective moments the occasional glimpse of fear that they won’t be good enough. I am pretty sure most of them will be appreciated as heroes by those children.

Another group of heroes I see are everyday people doing extra-ordinary things. From activists in Boston speaking the truth to power about the corruption of our government for the common good; to Jerry Mintz, a 60’s activist I met as a youth in Vermont at a table tennis tournament bringing thousands of kids and educators around the world together through homeschooling, alternative and democratic schools all for no personal benefit; to Fasi Zaka in Pakistan using his Rhodes education to write about the ills of corruption, militarism, and religious fanaticism and using his natural people skills as a DJ, MTV host and marketer to show a generation of Pakistani kids that it is hip to be smart, Muslim, Pakistani and to question everything and everybody: all in the face of constant death threats; to Doctors Ravi and Holly and their friends in New Orleans setting up a free medical clinic after Hurricane Katrina to help any and all when the government couldn’t or wouldn’t help the people. I have encountered many selfless people who truly want to make the world and people’s lives a bit better. Why is it that I usually meet these people outside the system, not inside?

About 20 years ago I chose the hero that I think may pass the test of time. He showed unbelievable courage in the face of danger, a plain speaking man who stood up for justice, order, freedom and rational thinking for his people. He became a symbol for millions around the world, inspiring many to speak and act out for what is right. The reason I think he will pass the test of time is that no one knows who he is, where he is, or if he is even alive. I get chills and tears every time I watch the video of what he did. (http://youtube.com/watch?v=O4xtkpO7ZqU) I am speaking of the Chinese man at Tiennamen Square who stood in front of the column of tanks and refused to let them pass. The man who crawled up the turret to speak to the crew and explain that they couldn’t attack the crowd because they were the People’s Army, and these were the People. What could be more plain and logical than that? Years later I had the opportunity to visit Tienneman Square. It was a powerful moment for me, to think and imagine what went on there. I visited the Monument to the People, which is set dead center in the middle of the humongous, imposing plaza. This had been the focal point of the uprising, and it is now roped off from the public so that the People can not visit the Monument to the People. The citizens had been leaving rolled up papers in the cracks, and gifts and remembrances on the sides, and of course that could not be tolerated by the regime. I said a prayer, and a thanks to my hero and the other citizens who stood up for what was right, and hoped that what they started may shortly lead to the society they envisioned.

I think that there is a hero in all of us. It is setting that bar as high as you possibly can, and then doing your best to attain or even exceed it. Sometimes it just doing the right thing at the right time, other times it is a lifetime of hard work. The best heroes are the ones that don’t need to called heroes, but just are.

1 comment:

Alicia said...

I'm a bit misty as I read this one. All points resonate truth.

I have found that many people mistake celebrities as heroes and rolemodels. Why is that?

I do believe that true heroes do the right thing without requiring adulation. I admire people for their courage in the face of adversity and compassion for the forgotten.

Those who live, work and play their dreams out are inspirational.

I'm on the verge of moving ahead with living my dream and am extremely exicted about the road ahead. I'll keep y'all posted ;)

smiles and hugs to you both,
Ali