Finding heroes in unexpected places by Deb Jenny

covermed.jpg Heroes…an interesting theme over which to ponder.

I have mixed feelings about the concept of what a hero actually is. I believe that in our society we have a propensity to place on a pedestal people for worship for all the wrong reasons. Not because they’ve done something really heroic, but simply because they’ve done something challenging or compelling or out of the ordinary. I remember several years back there was a soldier who got lost in Kosovo or somewhere near there, and survived in the wilderness for several days drinking rain water and eating berries before being rescued. When he returned to civilization he became an overnight sensation. The media lauded him as a hero of immense proportions, and he suddenly morphed into someone I think even he knew he was not.

You could tell in interviews he was almost embarrassed about the media reaction to his story, because to him, he was just doing what he’d been trained to do: survive in the wild if need be. He didn’t save a 100 people from a burning village, he didn’t toil in obscurity to discover the cure to a ghastly and deadly disease. He didn’t adopt children with severe physical or mental disabilities. He simply used his training to survive until someone was able to rescue him. Good for him—it’s great that he was able to do that. But heroic? Not in my book.

Of course in our culture, the ultimate heros are sports stars. Why innate physical ability translates to hero status will forever escape me. In the same vein I will never quite understand why a talentless publicity monger like Paris Hilton is considered a celebrity, or why anyone cares a whit about the daily transgressions of Britney Spears, who seems to be simply a broken soul desperately in need of repair. But throw an amazing touchdown in the last ten seconds of the big game, earn enough gold medals in the Olympics, hit a record number of home runs (even if you cheat to achieve that goal), and your name is in the annals of time as yet one more jock at whose altar hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of people will supplicate. I don’t know, maybe people desperately need heroes, and they’ll find them wherever then can.

To me, heroes are often the most mundane of people: those undereducated, underprivileged people who have to work three jobs to just to meet the rent and feed their children. Who could easily throw in the towel because it’s too damned hard, but instead they keep going because that’s what you do. And heroes are people who smile through yet one more chemotherapy treatment, despite their pain and suffering; volunteer crazy hours to keep an animal shelter operating; deliver food on a daily basis to shut-ins; tend to refugees in squalid conditions in third world nations; fight our battles for us (even if they don’t believe in them) in broken-down war zones throughout the world (and while they’re there demonstrating simple human kindesses to people most in need of that).

Most of the time people perform these acts of grace and selfless generosity without recognition, without adulation, and without compensation. They do it because it’s the right thing to do, and because they can.

Those are the real heroes, in my estimation.

Now who are your heroes?

—by Jenny Gardiner

17 Replies to “Finding heroes in unexpected places by Deb Jenny”

  1. dear deb jenny,

    i like your take on a “hero,” which is defined by the oxford dictionary as “a person admired for their courage or actions”. you are so right that far too often those doing the job for which they are handsomely compensated are lauded as heroic, while many who toil in obscurity or rise above challenging circumstances are not called “hero”.

    in addition to showing bravery, a “hero’s” motivation counts in my book. that is why i would say al gore qualifies as a “hero”. i don’t think he set out to win the nobel prize, or to receive praise for his work sounding the alarm about the dangers of climate change. rather, gore is an example of a man whose life purpose appeared to evaporate before his eyes. his response? embrace a cause even larger than himself, with the hope of touching every life for the better. now that’s a hero.


  2. Jenny, great post. And I think you’re right about what makes a hero. And shucks, if you were talking about me, thanks. 😉

    My husband is my hero. He’s stuck by me through temper tantrums, fruitless writing sabbaticals and years of whining about my (lack of) writing career. He’s cried with me when it got really bad, begging me never to give up on my dream. His unwavering belief in me has kept me going on several occasions when I wanted to throw in the towel. He’s a staunch supporter of animal causes and would give a friend the shirt off his back or his last dollar without ever expecting to get it back. And of course, he’s got a nice butt, which is an appealing feature on any hero.

  3. The teachers who work with kids like my own every day and care for them from head to toe and even the stinky parts in between. I HAVE to do it, I’m their Mom. They choose to do it. I can never thank them for the security I feel when I send my girls to school – instead of fear and worry. Life is a matter of perspective, is it not? Oh, and my agent will become the greatest hero in the universe when he sells my book, trumping ALL others. 😉

  4. One more! The gent who last year jumped onto the subway tracks in NYC and covered another man’s body with his own as the train passed over them. He is a hero. I also think firefighters are heroes but that just might be because I also think they are quite hot. No pun intended. If it’s your JOB can you be considered a hero? I think so, simply for choosing that job.

  5. Therese–I so agree with you. I bristle when Rudy Giuliani so deftly laid claim to hero status after 9/11 because while he certainly rallied admirably around the city in its time of need, it was his JOB to do that. It would have been a glaring failure had he not done so. But I guess that fits in with that media need to anoint a hero in certain circumstances, and perhaps the peoples’ need to have someone to focus on in times of darkness. I totally agree about Al Gore. It’s something when someone can take an untenable situation and rather than retreat into bitterness, concentrate on doing something for the good of others (and in his case EVERYONE!)

    Joanne–I think that’s so romantic that your husband is so devoted. He’s a good egg 😉

    And Kim–I’m with you. People who take on the tasks that no one else is willing to do, they are the ones to look up to. And that includes teachers of mainstream kids in addition to those who work with special needs kids (of course they get far more kudos). These folks are in the trenches and they are never recognized for it.

  6. I have a wide range of heros. I don’t mind people who are heros because of their jobs. Take firemen/firewomen- you couldn’t pay me enough money to run into a burning building. Sure it’s their job- but I’m glad the do it. I admire people who do difficult things and push through difficult times (be it winning a gold medal or surviving cancer) because it is hard, because it would be easier to give up and sit on the sofa and eat cheetos. Because when people do difficult things and do them with grace and dignity it reminds all of us that we are capable of doing the same.

    As for Paris…sigh… I don’t know what happened there. Perhaps she serves to remind us that we too could avoid wearing panties if we wanted.

  7. The real heroes of this world are those who take the time to listen and to care…no matter what. As for the “media made” heroes, their significance is fleeting when someone “better” comes along.

  8. Thanks Kristy. And Eileen, I definitely agree with you. Heck, even those who do things like collect trash for us, or pick up carrion off the side of the road. Utmost respect and appreciation. And sure, those who give up EVERYTHING for an athletic pursuit, there is something admirable about that, but I can’t help but see the other side of that–sort of like Dorothy Hamill who after her great Olympic achievements was left wondering what was left for her to do, and was this all that it was about? It’s sort of sad–we’ve watched kids who have given up their entire childhoods for their sports and now on the crest of adulthood regret it, and you can’t take it back. I guess I like more balance in life. And Larramie you’re so right, there are not enough out there who do listen and who give a care, and those that do seem to balance out so much that is wrong in the world, don’t they?

  9. Jenny, what a fantastic, thought-provoking entry! Some of my heroes are the ‘real’ journalists breaking important stories in the field. Nicholas Kristof of The Times, for example, for traveling to Darfur and first exposing the genocide as it happened…Eric Schlosser, modern-day muckracker…Granny D, political activist…I deeply admire people who are unafraid to speak out for good and truth, even when their voice shakes.

  10. Nick Kristof is AMAZING. And falls in deaf ears so often which is mind-boggling. I think too many people see insurmountable problems as ones they just choose to not attempt to ameliorate, as if there’s an “all or nothing” to it. Thank goodness we have people like him who aren’t that way!

  11. Great post!

    I felt the same frustration after reading The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner. He took care of his son after his wife dumped the kid on him, frequently relying on prostitutes to keep the boy fed. (The wife left, by the way, after he cheated on her.) Then, as soon as he started making some decent money, he shipped the kid back to his wife. (The book barely mentions the daughter he fathered with the same woman.)

    Will Smith plays him in a movie, and Gardner is made out to be this Father of the Year (I think he actually won that title) — FOR DOING WHAT MILLIONS OF SINGLE MOTHERS DO EVERY DAY.

    He only had his son living with him for a few years.

    Do we really want to set the bar for fatherhood this low?


  12. Wow Lisa, I had no idea about the follow-up story. That guy should be ashamed of himself and I wish everyone knew the full details.

    Well hmm The first person I think of is Mr. Watercotte, our middle school band teacher. He is just one amazing guy that puts himself out there and teaches kids how to stick to something till it shines. It’s hard to even describe what he does but it has created MAGIC. There are 250 kids in the school that are in band- out of probably 300 total. Once when he took them to a competition they had to put out so many more chairs, the judge said “What did you do, bring the entire school?” and he said “no, this is just the seventh graders~!” He makes a huge difference in kids lives and has a dedication much to be admired. He sets the bar high and the kids are amazed when they meet it! Very good life lessons. YAY MR. W!!!!


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