Thursday, February 22, 2007

Forgotten Heroes

When I was in high school there was a speech contest sponsored by a big bank. I don't recall how I became involved -- probably just got volunteered by one of my well-meaning teachers. What shall we do with Jack? He's so gifted, but unfocused. So there I stood along with five or six other kids -- all from the gifted classes as I recall. Did you know I was gifted? In case I haven't pointed that out with sufficient frequency, allow me to emphasis the point here. I was gifted. Very gifted. Got that?

So we had a moderated discussion on heroes. Well this was the mid '70s, and I didn't have any heroes. It was the '70s. Nobody had any heroes. In fact there were no heroes. It was the '70s -- didn't I say that already? So it was all theory with me, any talk on that particular subject. Now if the topic had been comic books I'd have had something to say. I expect heroism was just theory with all of us. So there we were in our bellbottoms and our mounds of hair -- although I personally never ... no, NEVER!!! wore bellbottoms -- and round and round we went, each of us trying to make a good-sounding point. I certainly didn't shine. I'm extremely cold, emotionless under pressure nowadays, but in those days anxiety made me inarticulate. I had less baggage then, but it seemed heavier.

I suppose I got a certificate of participation. Whatever. Afterward one of the judges pointed out that much of our discussion, perhaps all, focused not a bit on heroes, but on idols. Celebrities and media figures, actors and athletes. That observation was like an explosion in my head. No, like the lights going on. Only an older person could have made it. Someone who grew up at a time when there still were heroes.

In the next decade I got married and lived in Australia. It was only there that I became aware of the fact that I was American. Being by temperament a reserved and intense and loyal man, this awareness became a form of patriotism. Always honest in acknowledging failures, but understanding that such failures are despite rather than because of what America truly is, in this world. I've said this sort of thing too often to wish to repeat it here. But did I mention that I was gifted?

My love for this country is what made it possible for me to understand what heroism is. Because I finally learned to love something outside myself, I came to understand the nature of nobility. This awareness grew in me at the same time that I was becoming a new father. It all seems tied together. I had something to love, you see, that was outside of myself. Our heroes are the people who strive mightily and at great risk to protect the things that we as individuals love.

We don't forget our own heroes. Forgotten heroes are the heroes of other people. If they're heroes to us, we remember them. But there are heroes who are forgotten. Just another name in the news, and news is ephemeral -- hardly ever becomes history. Are they heroes at all then? Judgment calls and case by case decisions. There are heroes whose names are never called and whose sacrifice manifests only in the unnoticed absence of some catastrophe. Their names are inscribed only in the ledgers of whichever of God's angels has the job of bearing witness to secret virtue.

For my part, I am an immeasurably richer man than I was boy, because of my love for Abraham Lincoln, my hero. And TR. And a few other here-unnamed people. And my son. It's like patriotism. We are not insensible to the humanity, the failings, of those we admire. We overlook such things in the face of something so much greater and more powerful. All admiration requires a willful blindness, a deliberate forgetting of shortcomings. Only art is perfect, and that only because opinion makes it so. The rest of reality partakes of clutter and complexity. In this awareness, in this forgiveness, in this admiration of the imperfect we halt the slow entropic slide into futility, and turn the universe into a work of art.



Joe Rose said...

Excellent! Thanks.

Jack H said...


GUYK said...

Thanks Jack..very well put. I believe that the majority of us who have lived in other parts of the world..especially in places where liberty is severely limited..have more love and appreciation of the USA. I am a patriot and proud of it.