(c) The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Preached at Starr King UU Fellowship on 3 Nov. 2013
I was asked at one point last spring, point-blank, who my heroes were. And I could not think of a single one. Sure, I could think of people I admired, living and dead, people whose good examples I tried to follow. But I could think of ways in which every human being is flawed, as well, and struggled with the concept of heroism.
This was just after Lance Armstrong had been stripped of his Tour de France victories for illegal drug use in professional cycling. He had been hailed as a hero for years, as a role model for children and adults to show what can be accomplished through dedication and hard work. He had parlayed his success very selflessly into fundraising for cancer research. His voice is even in my earbuds on my iPod after a run, telling me I’ve done a great job.
And then it was all gone: after years of denying that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs, Armstrong declined to fight doping charges brought against him by the world cycling organization. His career was cast into shame. He admitted to using the illegal drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Experts debated whether a ban on performance-enhancing drugs in sports made any difference at all: if everyone’s doing it, they said, why should it be against the rules? Baseball heroes met similar fates.
All the heroes I could think of, in sports, in politics, in religion, they were all flawed. As humans trying to be good people, we do our best to work for the greater good despite our flaws. If heroism means expecting someone to be superhuman and perfect, we are bound to be disappointed. But if heroism means practicing our good character so that we can help others in times of need, there are plenty of people to admire, and anyone can be a hero.
Not all heroes are real people. Several generations of American children have now grown up reading superhero comic books. We have found our heroes in four-color pulp magazines and reveled in their exploits. Superheroes were introduced with Superman’s appearance in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938 and Namor the Submariner’s debut in Marvel Comics No. 1 in 1939. Batman appeared in Detective Comics No. 37 in 1939.
With these costumed men, some with supernatural powers and some using their simple human ingenuity, the superhero was born. In the early days, American superheroes fought Nazis and the war machines that threatened the earth. Captain America was a super-soldier who foiled evil Axis plots. Then, in the 1950s, superheroes became domesticated. In 1954, psychologist Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, claiming that lurid images in comic books and on television, especially violence, were corrupting young people and making them violent. The U.S. Senate responded by threatening to regulate comic books, but the industry developed its own censorship to head that threat off: the comics code authority. One war, against fascism, was over, and another war against the threat to America’s youth had begun. Superheroes became like super-police, foiling bank robbers and helping children learn important moral lessons. They came to represent the public face America wished to present to the world.
Other aspects of being American appeared in the new underground comics movement in the 1960s. Weirdness, feminism, and sexual freedom all found their expressions there. Superhero comics languished for a while, and the new superheroes like the X-Men were warnings of the nuclear age. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1984 and the Watchmen in 1986, by Allan Moore, seemed to spell the end of the superhero we could take seriously. In the first, Batman is old, broken, and brutal. In the second, the superheroes are mere ghosts of whatever glory they may once have had, and they are barely able to rally themselves against the threat to humanity. Tellingly, both stories are told partly through the lens of news media, both the nightly television news and headlines in the newspaper.
It’s as though the authors are saying: look at all the horror in the real world. How can we possibly expect our heroes, even our superheroes, to be up to this challenge? Now, superhero comics are experiencing a comeback, thanks in part to the runaway success of recent superhero movies. Superheroes are returning to the pages of our comic books and our American psyche, where they may not be able to solve all our problems, but they can certainly help. Still, in comic books, superheroes often battle super-villains and leave humans to their ordinary problems. They have become cosmic: we have our imaginary heroes to battle inter-galactic threats and invasive shape-shifting Martians from another universe and the approach of anti-matter Earths. We are still left to our own devices for banal evil and suffering. We still need real-life heroes to help us be and become a better humanity.
So I began to rethink my cynical notion that there were no heroes. There are no perfect people, true; but there are people in all walks of life who remind us all of our own capacity to be better people and leaders for our communities. I’m inspired by retired airline captain Chesley Sullenberger, who piloted a disabled jet to a completely safe landing in the Hudson River in 2009. He didn’t do anything extraordinary except what he was supposed to do in an emergency situation. After his commercial airplane with 155 passengers and crew flew into a flock of geese, both engines were disabled. Passengers reported seeing one engine on fire out the window of the plane. Sullenberger, described by friends as “quiet and reticent,” kept his cool after hitting the geese. He and his copilot communicated with air traffic control, and Sullenberger determined that the only safe course was to land in the Hudson river. He did this with no thrust from the engines. After landing safely, Sullenberger personally made sure that every person exited the aircraft. He completed the emergency landing with no loss of life.
Another person who has inspired me is Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot by Taliban soldiers for daring to speak out in favor of education for girls and women. Her bravery began before she was shot and has continued afterward. Yousafzai was already an activist for girls’ education by the time she was 11 years old (Bhutto). She was hated in her native Pakistan as a secularizer, a liberal and a troublemaker. Nonetheless, she continued to stand up for what she believed in, supported by her family, and ultimately risked her life for it.
Yousafzai has recovered from her injury and continues to pursue her own education while standing up for the rights of all Pakistan’s girls to learn in school. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Her actions in the face of her injury were to continue to do what she had been doing all her young life: to become educated herself and stand up for education for all. Her heroism is not because of her injury; ironically, the Taliban simply highlighted what a heroic young woman she already was. Her heroism is the act of continuing to act on her beliefs even in the face of threats and violence.
These people, this man and this little girl, are not heroes because they do things we never could. They are heroes because they did the right thing when it mattered. They took an ordinary commitment to human well-being and flourishing and stuck with it when everything was against them. We can learn from their example. Heroism is not being a superhero, or even accomplishing amazing athletic feats. Heroism is taking the ordinary practice of being a helpful and ethical person and applying it in an emergency. Captain Sullenberger landed his airplane safely because he had trained and was focused on his mission in a time of crisis. He was a calm and capable man who used his skills to save lives. Yousafszai is a courageous little girl who realized that her commitment to her own education was stronger than intimidation and violence.
I was in Boston last year after the marathon bombing. I had gone down for a meeting on Wednesday night, two days after the attack. On Friday morning I woke up early and went for a run. The Charles River was eerily quiet; a blue heron waded along the Esplanade. There were only a few cars on the street, and police officers huddled in small groups around their bicycles and cars. I felt sad during my run, aware of a city in mourning around me. The emptiness of the city was palpable. When I got back to my room, I learned that the city was in fact locked down while police pursued two bombing suspects. My sense of sorrow and worry intensified. In our meeting, we tried our best to do our work while hearing from friends all over greater Boston who had to stay in their houses, not knowing what violence would erupt next. My brother and his family were at home only blocks from the police search in Watertown. The city held its breath.
A reminder began appearing on Facebook and other Internet sites then: the quote from children's educator and minister Fred Rogers that we heard earlier. "In times of trouble, my mother always told me to look for the helpers (Rogers 183)." Mr. Rogers's mother gave him this advice when he was frightened by newsreels and newspapers as a child, and he offered it to parents as advice for how to handle violence in the television news with their children.
The world is sometimes violent and scary, Mr. Rogers reminded parents, but we can focus our children's attention on the good people who are being helpful and kind even in the worst situations. Sometimes these people are professional helpers. Boston has been commended for the skill and response of its emergency medical technicians and hospital staff. These are ordinary people who, through training, skill and dedication, helped create safety and well-being during the bombing aftermath. Along with firefighters, police officers, race officials and just ordinary citizens, these helpers showed the face of human kindness in a time of tragedy. They reminded all of us that human evil cannot overwhelm human goodness; that people who have practiced goodness all their lives will come through when they are most needed.
The best superheroes make us all stand a little taller. They make us look inside ourselves and think, “I could be a hero.” Or even if we don’t think we could be heroes, they make us say, “I can be a helper.” Heroism helps us put aside our own sense of doom and helplessness. They inspire us to imagine the ways in which we can help ourselves, our communities and even our wider world. In the comic books, superheroes began as part of the war effort and climbed all the way to having a base on the moon and fighting aliens, before taking a break and coming back as partners with human leaders and helpers.
Our heroes, both imaginary and real, should inspire us to be better people all the time. For after all, that’s what has made them heroes. Sullenberger and Yousafszai put years of practice into the work they cared about before encountering a circumstance that made the world recognize their heroism. For years, their heroism went unnoticed. That’s how it is for all of us. We try every day to do the right thing and live according to our principles. We may never be recognized as heroes, and we hope every day that we never encounter a true tragedy that needs public heroics. But we are practicing living according to our values, and we also hope that this practice prepares us to hold onto those values if they are ever tested. The best heroes inspire us to practice our own heroism, to try more this week than the week before to live according to our best values in life.
In our comic books, in sports, in political figures, we are reassessing what heroism means. We’re learning that we won’t find perfect people to be our heroes. We may think they’re perfect for a time, but they will always disappoint us with their flawed humanity. Instead, we are learning that all of us, in our own flawed humanness, have the opportunity to be heroes. We look to those people who inspire us by doing their best and living their values in good times and in bad. We let them inspire us to develop our own characters so that we, too, may stand up for what we believe in. We develop our character in our everyday lives so that, if we are ever faced with an emergency or the powers of injustice, we ourselves may be the heroes and the helpers the world needs.
Please join me in the spirit of prayer.
We lift up our hearts and minds for all those who toil for righteousness in the world, and especially those who labor in the face of danger. May they remain safe and may their visions be realized.
We ask for fortitude for our own spirits as we try to be good people and live according to our values. Help us every day find strength and courage to be the best people we can be.
We offer our best thoughts and prayers or our own leaders in every walk of life. May they have the courage to live according to the highest good for the people they serve. Amen.
Bhutto, Fatima. “I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: Review.” The Guardian 30 Oct. 2013. Accessed 1 Nov. 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/30/malala-yousafzai-fatima-bhutto-review.
Rogers, Fred. Mister Rogers Talks With Parents. Berkley Books, 1983.