Thursday, November 01, 2007

What Constitutes A Hero?

"As you get older, it's harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary."

-Ernest Hemingway

Well, I am officially back from my 3 week vacation, and ready to tackle yet another issue that's been on my mind. What constitutes a hero? I ask this because of an article I read online yesterday in the New York Post. It seems there was a retired New York City detective, James Zadroga, who worked at ground zero, for over 400 hours to be exact, as a New Jersey ME. During that time, he was susceptible to inhaling all of the toxins that was associated with the collapse of the twin towers. Zadroga died in 2006, but the official medical examiner's report, which was released in early October, indicated that Zadroga's
death was a direct result of the misuse of prescription medication. Medication which had been apparently prescribed to him, because of the work he did at Ground Zero. So, according to the current New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, science has showed, "this was not a hero."

So, tell me, when you think of what a hero is, what comes to mind? Is a hero someone who puts the safety of others above their own well being? Is it the sports figure who has an unbeatable record of play, and still tests negative for performance enhancing drugs? Is every soldier in the military a hero, even if they have been suspected of wrongdoing? Is a hero the guy who jumps to the aide of a stranger who has just fallen from a subway platform, to shield that stranger from an oncoming train? Is it a father, who runs into a neighbor's house that is on fire, to save the family inside, while not stopping to think of his own mortality?

If you have been reading Ellipsis for a while, you probably know that my father did just that. One August night, in 1968, my father and his carpool friends, turned the corner onto our street, to see our neighbors house fully engulfed in flames. I will never forget dad running in and out, carrying the unconscious bodies of my friends and their mother. I was sure dad was going to die... but instead he, and his buddies, saved their lives. Dad was a lot of things. He could be and was quite abusive, both mentally and physically, but on that night he was very simply one of four heroes. Let me tell you, it's a complex thing to consider when I think of dad, and all that he was in my life. All the bad stuff between us has long since been dealt with and forgotten by me, but I continue to have nightmares about that night, and the sight of him running into that house.

I expect that most heroes have complex lives. As far as I know, most heroes are also human beings. Humans make mistakes, sometimes big ones, but mistakes all the same. So, if most heroes are humans, what exactly do we look for in the ideal of a hero? Do they have a certain way they must have lived their entire lives, or face losing their hero worship? Do they have to die while aiding another, to truly be called a hero? Can they have a flawed past, and should their future be up to judgement? Is it possible that the word hero actually has very little meaning? Or does it really mean everything? Can it be like how I have come think of my father, a deeply flawed human being, who also knew when and where to do the right thing?

Sometimes I wonder, when some previously held hero falls from grace, what we had really expected of them to begin with. We put pressure on athletes to out preform the next guy, and then gasp in horror when it is discovered that they have cheated to reach their goals. We seem to have a hero for everything from sports figures to teachers, to military personal to pop stars. Anytime we want to feel better about being America we hold another person up to the light we create for them, and then look away when their humanity becomes inconvenient. I happen to think Mayor Bloomberg was wrong in his assessment of James Zadroga, because no matter what else happened in his life, there is 400 hours of selflessness that he gave to New York City, that simply cannot be denied.

Opinions, opinions. Who do you consider to be heroes? Do you have a personal hero in your life? Tell me what you think.

"Yellow Ribbon Trees"
Carson City, Nevada
October 24th, 2007
Late Morning

1 comment:

Karen Funk Blocher said...

You make a really good point here. Yes, I think a hero is one who makes an effort on behalf of others, despite personal danger or fear or inconvenience. Athletes typically aren't heroes, as far as I'm concerned, unless they do something for others off the field, and aren't paid for it. Ditto entertainers. They can be heroes - Bob Geldof, for example, organizing Live Aid, a writer exposing corruption, or a famous pitcher who organizes parks for children and fights against ALS - but just doing your job in a way that benefits no one else is not heroism.

Nor can the good works you go be wiped out by a personal shortcoming that does little or no harm to others.