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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Heroes: setting the bar

Recently at a Carolina Hurricanes hockey game, the "Ask the Players" segment during a break in the action posed the question to players, "Who are your heroes?"

I like this definition of "heroism": to display courage and the will for self-sacrifice in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, for some greater good of humanity. This definition differentiates heroism from mere courage or outstanding achievement or altruism. A necessary part of heroism is putting oneself at true risk; another necessary part is an objective that's not self-serving.

Who are my heroes? It's a difficult topic for me. Without doubt, there are people who do heroic things. The U.S. military recognizes exceptional heroism in battle with the Medal of Honor, for example. We all know persons who have done heroic things with less recognition than a Medal of Honor or even no recognition at all. My cousin Mike, who was a USMC combat engineer on the road to Khe Sanh in 1967-1968, says he "got some medals" but won't talk further about it.

We also know that all persons live under the proverbial Fall. The Christian scriptures seem to go out of their way to portray many of the apostles as the opposite of heroic. Jim Bouton's groundbreaking book Ball Four dispelled myths of consistent heroism in baseball. As I grew out of my youthful innocence, I discovered that a person can be a hero one minute and a creep or coward the next. That was an unsettling discovery, but adulthood is full of ambiguity and variation.

I'm inclined to think of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. as consistently heroic. Late in life he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his enforcement of desegregation in Alabama. Federal judges have, in fact, been the target of violence -- most recently in Arizona. Admittedly, though, I haven't read Johnson's biographies or spoken with anyone who knew him personally. Did he kick his dog on occasion? I hope not, but there's that possibility.

Perhaps I'm too cynical or overly critical. Do malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance "un-do" a prior heroic act? How consistently heroic, or at least how consistently admirable, must a hero be in order to be worthy of acclamation? Each of us must answer those questions for oneself.