Today, at about 2 P.M., it was 8 degrees outside. The wind whipped through layers, penetrating to the bone. Snow cascaded, suffocating your feet with every step. The light came and went, leaving ice in its tracks, as darkness took over the sky. Today seemed like the perfect day to sit next to a fireplace, with a hot beverage and a good book. Today seemed like the perfect day to never allow that blanket you keep on the couch to leave your shoulders. Today seemed like the perfect day to stay home, especially after a week of the same weather. Despite that, despite the cold crackling on both sides of a windshield, and tires spinning along the 3 inch ice, despite everything, people didn’t stay home.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a volunteer coordinated event. The purpose was to gather as many volunteers as possible to attempt to paint the inside of the Boy’s and Girl’s club in one day. As I arrived, I was greeted by the sudden stench of paint, and the infinite amount of step ladders, buckets, and rollers. But that isn't what surprised me. What surprised me was the 20 or so men there, all wearing the same white outfit with various colors splattered on it, all looking and acting like painting professionals.
I soon found out that it was the local painter’s union, all volunteering their Saturday, along with all of their equipment, to assist in this endeavour. I was fascinated. I grew up with audio of the unions being these horrible, money globs that only seek power, but I was witnessing grown men with families sacrifice their time in order to make a difference in the community. I began asking as many questions as possible, and learned that not only did they come today, but they have been sending people here all week, and that this isn’t the first Saturday they have offered up their services for free. I thought to myself, maybe these are the heroes.
Yesterday, I witnessed a college student spending her evening working with children from a low-income housing district. The youth clung to her as she read stories, told jokes, and listened to their tales of the day. It was obvious to me that these youth have never received this much or this type of attention before. Maybe this is how she is saving the world.
I always searched for my powers. Far and wide, I tore apart every book, every insight, searching for the word or phrase that would unlock whatever lie inside of me. I had dreams of being super, of hearing the world praise my name, of running circles around the greatest evils we have ever seen. I couldn’t find a reason to live if you weren’t a hero, if the history books didn’t carve my name next to Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. I felt lost when this search went on for years, yielding no results, casting an empty net of significance into the world. “What is the point of not being super?” I would rattle off of the inside of my mind night after night. I couldn’t see a point to living a normal life, a life without being super for those around me.
I guess, maybe what it all boils down too, is that I was all wrong. Maybe it isn’t about traveling, chasing headlines, and assisting in the big, newsworthy disasters, but buckling down and having the to courage to help the “small” people who seem forgotten, or doing the little, everyday things that your community, your friends, or your family need.
I think the issue with this idea, and the issue with our preconceived notion of a hero being “super”, is intertwined with our society’s definition of success. Society, and in turn us, praises those who reach some sort of pinnacle at the top. We view those who donate the most money, spend the most time, or help the most people as the true heros. Everyone else is underneath, on a different, often unrecognized, scale as if the only way to find significance, the only way to make a difference is to be in the top 100 of the Forbes list.
This isn’t true. You don’t have to be “super” to be a hero. You can be, and if you are, that is good too. But to change the world, to make a true difference in the lives of those around us, all we have to do is to do good. All we have to do is to be a “Protector”. That is what being a hero means. As Christopher McDougall tells us in Natural Born Heroes, the word hero stems from the greek term, protector. Heroes protect others.
We see this all around us, everyday. Many public servants are heroes, risking their lives to protect those around them. The Red Cross’ workforce is made up primarily of volunteers. These are people who leave or interrupt their own lives to assist others in their times of need. In Anchorage, there is a Disaster Response Team made up exclusively of volunteers, who, at any hour of the night, respond and assist in the “small” disasters, such as house fires, car accidents, etc. Maybe these are all heroes.
Maybe it doesn’t take eradicating cancer, or solving world hunger to be a hero. Maybe we can find significance in the small acts of changing the world, such as volunteering to work with kids, or cleaning up our neighborhood. Maybe, all we need to do to be a hero is to be kind to those around us, to brighten people’s day, and to work hard to be a good husband, a good father, and a good friend (or wife/mother).
I want to close with a story that really drove this point home for me. I felt that the only way I could ever make a difference was if I was a huge public figure. Thus, I volunteered for speeches and traveled to assist in large scale disaster responses. I left my home to live the various states, lastly being Alaska. While in Alaska, I spend of a few of my evenings working with youth from the same district that I witnessed the college student volunteering at.
As I was hovering, creating a shadow that sprawled out, hiding in the back of the classroom, a little girl, no older than 6 tugged on my pants. In her hands was a torn and obviously used version of a The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Motioning the book towards me, I pulled up two seats to an adjacent table and began reading out loud. She stopped me, grabbing my hand and asking me to point to the words as I read them. So I did, not once through, but twice.
Motionless, as if she became “The Thinker”, carved in stone, she listened and stared intensely. As I finished the last page and closed the book, she gave me the quickest of hugs, as if she didn’t want anyone to see, or the feeling to linger, and she said, “Thank you.” Then she ran off with the other kids. Maybe this is how I become a hero.