16 January 2011


Years ago, a psychologist (whose name escapes me) remarked, "Be careful whom you choose as your heroes. You will have diminished yourself in some way." I puzzled over this seeming paradox, before realizing that one way of interpreting it is this -- by choosing only one or a small number of heroes, we are refusing to recognize the values and insights offered by others who may have fallen beneath our radar.

Besides, hero-worship is fraught with self-deception. To idealize someone to hero status is to ignore their very human frailties or shortcomings. This is why I walked out on the movie Gandhi. The film lionized its subject so thoroughly that the resulting portrait was little more than a cardboard cutout, missing the complexities of doubt, ambiguity and self-growth which mark the human experience.

Still, there is something to be said for noticing a heroic act. It reminds us of the better, more selfless side of our nature -- our potential for goodness. In the week following the tragic shootings in Tucson, and President Obama's transcendent memorial address, many have paused to reconsider their own words, deeds, and assumptions. In the spirit of reflection, here are a few examples from my own select list of people whose lives offer hope for the human race. Each is a human being complete with faults and goodness, and each rose to nobility by facing extraordinary, often lethal opposition.

From the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the quintessential voice of conscience and inspiration whose birthday has become a national holiday, celebrated this weekend. For years, he offered his vision of peace and brotherhood, usually placing his own life in jeopardy by doing so. Ultimately he was assassinated, but his memory is revered by all who heard his words. One of my ambitions in life is to make a pilgrimage to Atlanta, GA, to visit the Civil Rights Memorial honoring those slain during those tumultuous times.

From the world of politics, Daniel Ellsberg, who experience the Vietnam War firsthand, and later as a political advisor to President Nixon, witnessed the history of lies and deceipt practiced at the highest levels of government to perpetuate that war. In an act of supreme conscience, Ellsberg risked his career and imprisonment by making available to the American People the Pentagon Papers, published in the NYTimes. His riveting story is told in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man In America.

From the military, Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. When he overflew the My Lai Massacre in progress, he and his two-man crew landed and stopped American soldiers from murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians, saving many lives at the risk of their own. The subsequent press coverage of the massacre, as well as Thompson's testimony before a Pentagon investigation, helped turn the tide of public opinion against that unjust war.

From the arts, Joan Baez, who for half a century has spoken and sung about social and political issues, often taking unpopular stands in order to be true to her own ideals of pacifism, human rights, and environmental causes. She has been a consistent voice for moderation, tolerance and human understanding, even when faced with slander and the threat of imprisonment.

From the sciences, Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution through natural selection. Darwin researched, studied and thought for several decades before publishing his seminal work, and afterward faced a groundswell of ridicule and vilification, both from his scientific peers and from the general public. Yet he persisted, and today our understanding of life is richer for the risks he took.

There are, of course, many others who belong on this list -- Nelson Mandela, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Sanger, and yes, Mohandas Gandhi -- people who lived their lives, and often risked their lives, consistently with ideals which elevate us all.

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