A Time for Heroes

The opportunities to make a difference are right in front of you.

Who are your heroes? Do you have any? Why does it matter?

My first hero was a large black man named Roy. He worked in the engine room of a freighter called the Golden Bear, bound for the Orient, and I, at seventeen, was the youngest member of the crew. Irreverent, tough, yet kind to me, Roy seemed the perfect model of manhood that I wanted for myself, a manhood that seemed out of reach to the nerdy, scrawny kid I was. The second day at sea, another crewman threatened me in Roy's hearing. In an instant, Roy slammed him against the wall, with his forearm so hard against the man's throat that the guy's eyes bulged out. Roy then unleashed the most magnificent cussing I had ever heard, telling he man that if he so much as put his m-f hand on me, he (Roy) would cut off the guy's m-f (private member) and cram it up his m-f ass.

I watched this in awe. That night, in front of a mirror, I practiced what Roy had done. I slammed my right elbow against the throat of an imaginary foe, then my left, then my right again. I looked as fierce as I could and I practiced cussing just like Roy.

Roy was limited in many ways, but he was the warrior-model I needed when I was seventeen, and his impact on me that summer of 1959 was an important part of my growing up.

I found other, more complete heroes as I grew older, and their inspiration and guidance helped me deal with things more important than adolescent angst. In this I certainly haven't been alone. Since the beginning of time, every culture has honored heroes as models of the values that culture wanted to live by and to pass on to its young.

The classic hero in Western Christian tradition is Parsifal, and the classic hero's story is the quest for the Holy Grail-the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. You may remember the story, most famously told by Joseph Campbell in Hero of a Thousand Faces.

Parsifal was this gawky young man-he didn't look like a hero at all. He lived with his mother in a land blighted by a terrible curse. Because of this curse, the crops would not grow. There was disease and hunger and the people were overwhelmed with despair. The curse could be lifted only if the king drank from the Holy Grail, but nobody could find the Grail. Every great knight in the land had tried and failed. Parsifal wept with grief at the suffering he saw. Driven by his compassion, he resolved to find the Grail himself, and save the kingdom.

His mother told him to stay home and be quiet. How could he, an ignorant boy, she said to him, hope to succeed where great knights had failed? Luckily for the kingdom, Parsifal ignored his mother and set out on his quest, going through great dangers and obstacles until he found the Grail and the curse on the land was lifted.

Parsifal is an archetypal hero. So is Frodo, of Lord of the Rings. So is Harry Potter. The stories of Frodo and Harry are very much like Parsifal's. All three are unlikely heroes, but they conquer indecision and fear, undergo hardships and take risks to save others.

There are many other heroes' stories, over thousands of years. The heroic values in these stories are much the same-courage and compassion and service. And in each the hero gives others a template for living their own lives heroically, for helping meet the challenges that test them and test their times.

Who are the heroes of our times? The Giraffe Heroes Project, the nonprofit I help run, has been asking kids that question for fifteen years, as part of our schools programs. Many kids have no answer at all. Those that do, often name celebrities-people famous for abilities in music, sports or movies that usually have nothing to do with heroes. Barry Bonds can hit home runs. Britney Spears can sing and dance. But if you took away their skills at sports and entertaining, what would be left?

It's clear that the responses we get from kids reflect not just their own attitudes, but the attitudes of their parents and other adults in their lives. All those attitudes are rooted in a media-driven, mall-driven culture that has little room for real heroes-brave truth-tellers and active citizens focused on the common good. As a result, too many people today have lost sight of heroic values-or don't think that they are important or attainable anymore. They may take note of the problems in our society enough to complain about them, but not enough to take responsibility for helping solve them. They may not think that ordinary citizens could do that-because they have no heroes to show them it's possible.

And the problems mount-an outpouring of global support after 9/11 squandered by arrogance and ignorance. A national government buried in corruption and incompetence. A widening gap between rich and poor that's destroying community and pushing us toward class warfare. Media that have slept as these problems grow. We need all the heroes we can get. We need them in government and in business, in county councils and PTAs, in media and the nonprofit world, in professions and in the arts.

My biggest fear is that we are steadily destroying the ground in which heroes can grow. Through our apathy and our votes, we've built an electoral system that encourages politicians to serve their financial backers, not the voters. Through our investment and purchasing decisions, we co-conspire with corporations to focus on private gain, ignoring the common-good goals buried in their charters. Through lazy minds and lazy spirits, we've created a pop culture that promotes trivia and blurs real with unreal.

We can fix this. We can bring back heroes and cultivate the ground that heroes can grow in. Remember how this nation reacted to the heroes of 9/11? Remember how comforting, how inspiring it was to know that in that crisis some people-very ordinary Americans, people just like us-could be that selfless, that brave? Stunned and frightened, we focused on the actions of these heroes and we drew strength from them.

There are heroes amongst us now-not firemen running into burning, collapsing buildings, perhaps, but ordinary people who by their courage and compassion inspire others. The Giraffe Heroes Project finds these heroes (we call them "Giraffes") and tells their stories on our website, in schools, in our books and in the media. They're young and old, male and female, and from every ethnic and economic background. They're working on every problem you can think of, from environmental pollution to government corruption, from discrimination to poverty, from homelessness to gang violence.

Giraffes are people like Casey Ruud, a safety inspector who put his job on the line when he refused to ignore dangerous violations at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. Hazel Wolf was a Giraffe who stuck her neck out speaking truth to power and spurring the powerless to action on environmental and other issues in the Pacific Northwest. "Neto" Villareal, a star high school football player in a football-crazy town, risked his athletic future when he led Latino players in a football boycott in order to stop racist taunts from fans.

Our storytelling works. People who see or hear about Giraffes are inspired to take on the challenges they see, from cleaning up a wetland to cleaning up a city council. The Giraffe Heroes Project is helping cultivate the ground where heroes can grow, be appreciated, and lead. You can do the same, by acknowledging the heroes you see, and getting their stories told on the Internet, in letters to the editor-any way you can. Under all the distractions of our lives there is still something that recognizes our need for heroes, and for the heroic values that have always been a part of the American story, the American ethic.

Finding the heroes outside is important. But so is finding the hero within. For me that chance first came at the US Mission to the United Nations. As a young diplomat in 1980, I risked my career by secretly organizing global pressure against my own government to help end apartheid in South Africa. That experience was like learning to swim. I couldn't forget what I'd done or how to do it. I couldn't forget the joy and fulfillment I felt in making a difference like that.

Being a hero doesn't have to mean shifting global policies, saving hundreds of lives or blowing the whistle on some huge crime. Most heroes are very ordinary people who see a problem, large or small, near or distant, and have the courage and commitment to take it on.

All of us see such opportunities around us every day, opportunities to act with courage and caring to solve a public problem-to make things better for other people-if only in small and quiet ways. The more years that pass from that experience at the United Nations, the more I realize that spotting these opportunities and acting on them is key to a meaningful life. The biggest mistake any of us can make is to ignore this quest, to just look out for Number One, to grow up and live and die without every having made a positive difference on the world around us.

What are your opportunities? What can you do with your talents, your experience, your resources? In this dangerous, conforming, buck-passing age, where can you be the kind of model this country needs? Pay attention to that still small voice that says, or may someday say to you: "Hey, hear me through all the uproar and clutter and pressures of your life. This opportunity to be a hero-this one right in front of you-is important, to others and to you. Stick your neck out. Take it on."