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During the course of our lives we all end up facing a variety of growing up rites of passage that everyone must ultimately confront during the sometimes difficult path to becoming an adult. Some of these passages are enjoyable, some are disconcerting, and some are downright disappointing, like learning the truth about Santa and the Tooth Fairy. My son, Chuck, experienced one of the more disappointing milestones of adulthood recently, and it left him rather depressed.
His particular moment of epiphany came when he was doing a presentation for his mythology class in school in which it was required that he choose one of his personal heroes and create a video and speech about his or her life and how it followed the classic hero myth journey. Piece of cake. Chuck has always had a list of people he respects and admires in history, and it is pretty impressive. Lincoln, Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, to name a few. He chose to go with Gandhi.
In a previous presentation done earlier in the year about bravery in the face of censure he had chosen to talk about Edward R. Murrow and the McCarthy era, which turned out to be a waste of his time since no one in his class other than his teacher had ever heard of Murrow or knew anything about the McCarthy witch hunts and demonstrated a complete lack of interest in learning about any of it. I remember the evening after he gave that presentation because he was pretty depressed. He had learned about Murrow and found his courage such an inspiration to do the right thing and in passing his story on to his classmates had found that mostly it just inspired them to fall asleep at their desks. He experienced a period of serious isolation after that. In choosing Gandhi he hoped that some of them would have at least heard of him. I thought that he might be somewhat overly optimistic in that regard but I didn't say anything. Best to be hopeful.
Since Chuck had been given an extra day to work on his presentation due to illness, most of his class did theirs before him. He came home and told me that all of the boys did sports figures and the girls did people like Angelina Jolie and Beyonce. It was not looking good for poor Gandhi. I won't lie, I was appalled. No disrespect to athletes, actresses, or pop singers, but I'm pretty sure none of them ever risked their lives and freedom to lead their people in a non-violent revolution to free their nation from the oppressive rule of an invading empire. If they had, wouldn't it be written up in People Magazine or on Entertainment Tonight or something? When he finally gave the presentation, he found that although some of his classmates had heard Gandhi's name, they had no idea who he was or what he had done. More importantly, they didn't seem to care much, which left poor Chuck with an excellent presentation and a dozing classroom yet again. It was bleak.
Adding to this disappointment was discovering in the course of his research that Gandhi had some seriously disconcerting quirks of personality and character flaws that somewhat belied the near saint-like version of him that is popular. I reminded Chuck that Gandhi was, after all, just a person, and as such, prey to the many serious flaws and weaknesses that all human beings are heir to, but that fact did not diminish what he accomplished or the philosophy and methods he used to accomplish it.
“He was kind of weird,” said Chuck.
“Undoubtedly,” I agreed. “But historically, oddity has often gone hand in hand with greatness. You can't let that stop you from admiring what they achieved. Beethoven was a total freak but that doesn't change the fact that he composed some of the most glorious music ever written. Its best to intellectually separate the person from his or her genius. Much less disappointing that way.”
“My peers think I'm a freak,” Chuck said.
“Maybe you are a freak,” I told him. “But you're a freak who knows about Edward R. Murrow and Gandhi and if that puts you in the freak category I think it definitely elevates you above anyone with a pop star for a hero.”
Chuck has decided that while there are people he respects and admires in life and he acknowledges that there are certainly people who can be heroic, he will only see fictional characters as actual full time heroes. No chance of feet of clay in fiction so long as you aren't talking about the ever-popular anti-hero. That's another story.
We can all aspire to heroism. To be pure of heart, fair, brave, loyal, kind, compassionate, and with a desire to serve others, and so we should. And when our humanity betrays us and we fall on our faces we should do what all great heroes do – get back up and try again.
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