My first hero was a large black man named Roy. He worked in the engine room of a freighter called the Golden Bear, bound for the Orient, and I, at seventeen, was the youngest member of the crew. Irreverent, tough, yet kind to me, Roy seemed the perfect model of manhood that I wanted for myself, a manhood that seemed out of reach to the nerdy, scrawny kid I was. The second day at sea, another crewman threatened me in Roy's hearing. In an instant, Roy slammed him against the wall, with his forearm so hard against the man's throat that the guy's eyes bulged out. Roy then unleashed the most magnificent cussing I had ever heard, telling he man that if he so much as put his m-f hand on me, he (Roy) would cut off the guy's m-f (private member) and cram it up his m-f ass.
I watched this in awe. That night, in front of a mirror, I practiced what Roy had done. I slammed my right elbow against the throat of an imaginary foe, then my left, then my right again. I looked as fierce as I could and I practiced cussing just like Roy.
Roy was limited in many ways, but he was the warrior-model I needed when I was seventeen, and his impact on me that summer of 1959 was an important part of my growing up.
The classic hero in Western Christian tradition is Parsifal, and the classic hero's story is the quest for the Holy Grail-the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. You may remember the story, most famously told by Joseph Campbell in Hero of a Thousand Faces.
Parsifal was this gawky young man-he didn't look like a hero at all. He lived with his mother in a land blighted by a terrible curse. Because of this curse, the crops would not grow. There was disease and hunger and the people were overwhelmed with despair. The curse could be lifted only if the king drank from the Holy Grail, but nobody could find the Grail. Every great knight in the land had tried and failed. Parsifal wept with grief at the suffering he saw. Driven by his compassion, he resolved to find the Grail himself, and save the kingdom.
Parsifal is an archetypal hero. So is Frodo, of Lord of the Rings. So is Harry Potter. The stories of Frodo and Harry are very much like Parsifal's. All three are unlikely heroes, but they conquer indecision and fear, undergo hardships and take risks to save others.
There are many other heroes' stories, over thousands of years. The heroic values in these stories are much the same-courage and compassion and service. And in each the hero gives others a template for living their own lives heroically, for helping meet the challenges that test them and test their times.
Who are the heroes of our times? The Giraffe Heroes Project, the nonprofit I help run, has been asking kids that question for fifteen years, as part of our schools programs. Many kids have no answer at all. Those that do, often name celebrities-people famous for abilities in music, sports or movies that usually have nothing to do with heroes. Barry Bonds can hit home runs. Britney Spears can sing and dance. But if you took away their skills at sports and entertaining, what would be left?
It's clear that the responses we get from kids reflect not just their own attitudes, but the attitudes of their parents and other adults in their lives. All those attitudes are rooted in a media-driven, mall-driven culture that has little room for real heroes-brave truth-tellers and active citizens focused on the common good. As a result, too many people today have lost sight of heroic values-or don't think that they are important or attainable anymore. They may take note of the problems in our society enough to complain about them, but not enough to take responsibility for helping solve them. They may not think that ordinary citizens could do that-because they have no heroes to show them it's possible.
And the problems mount-an outpouring of global support after 9/11 squandered by arrogance and ignorance. A national government buried in corruption and incompetence. A widening gap between rich and poor that's destroying community and pushing us toward class warfare. Media that have slept as these problems grow.
My biggest fear is that we are steadily destroying the ground in which heroes can grow. Through our apathy and our votes, we've built an electoral system that encourages politicians to serve their financial backers, not the voters. Through our investment and purchasing decisions, we co-conspire with corporations to focus on private gain, ignoring the common-good goals buried in their charters. Through lazy minds and lazy spirits, we've created a pop culture that promotes trivia and blurs real with unreal.
We can fix this. We can bring back heroes and cultivate the ground that heroes can grow in. Remember how this nation reacted to the heroes of 9/11? Remember how comforting, how inspiring it was to know that in that crisis some people-very ordinary Americans, people just like us-could be that selfless, that brave? Stunned and frightened, we focused on the actions of these heroes and we drew strength from them.