It's tough to have heroes in our information age. Even if you pick a really good one, an individual who has done something genuinely important (i.e. isn't a pop star or an athlete who plays games for a living), it is still likely that someone will eventually dig up a fact or two about your hero that will leave you disappointed and disillusioned. Is it Steve Jobs the visionary innovator and champion of geekdom, or is it Steve Jobs the deadbeat dad and thief? Lance Armstrong the cancer survivor and 7 times Tour de France winner, or Lance Armstrong the cheater and drug user? And don't get me started about Chuck Norris the bad-ass martial arts expert and actor. (He's a...gasp!...Republican.)
It starts to feel like every hero's story is just a carefully constructed fiction, making them no more real than the purely imaginary heroes I worshipped as a child. And even the fictional heroes would sometimes let me down. Case in point:
When I was seven, every boy in my neighborhood was crazy about Spider-man. This was long before movie studios had even thought about trying to make a film about everyone's favorite webslinger; we just had the comics and a psychedelic cartoon that was only animated in the loosest sense of the word. (I swear that you could almost see the fingers of the guy whose job it was to drag the paper Spider-man cutout across the badly painted backgrounds. Even my seven-year-old mind recognized the show's creators were making this thing on the cheap when I saw the same painted backgrounds - and sometimes even the same villain spouting the same lines - appearing on Rocket Robin Hood.) At least we can thank that incarnation of Spider-man for giving us an unforgettable theme song.
However, the problem with everyone being a fan of the same character was when we got together to play superheroes under the large trees in our backyard, everyone wanted to be Spider-man. This meant we would often have as many as half a dozen little boys running around our backyard making web-shooting sounds (which sound a lot like flatulent birds) but no villains to take down. It was as if Costco had just received a shipment of radioactive spiders and was selling them in bulk.
This was intolerable; how can you place your fingers against your temples - like your mom does when you play inside all afternoon with five other pint-sized superheroes - and shout, "My spidey senses are tingling!" if there is no danger present to set it off? It's a whole superpower just going to waste, like Clark Kent using his heat-vision for nothing more than warming up the occasional frozen burrito in the Daily Planet lunchroom.
So, one time, we decided to give Spider-man (all four of him in attendance that day) a real challenge. We were going to use Spidey's climbing power and webslinging ability to scale a skyscraper and swing over to the next towering building. Of course, for a group of six and seven-year-olds, that translated to tying a garden hose from one tall tree to another, about twelve feet off of the ground. You can only imagine how excited these four little Spider-men were as they lined up at the bottom of the first tree to take their turns shimmying along the green rubber tubing to the next tree ten feet away. I think the littlest Spider-man among us might even have wet himself. Something was "tingling", and it sure didn't smell like spidey-sense.
Anyway, I was second in line behind Fat Spider-man (every super team has one) and that proved to be a near-fatal error in judgement. Garden hoses don't make for very secure knots at the best of times, and our limited knot-tying abilities were an embarrassment to the Spider-man name. So all it took was one chubby six-year-old Peter Parker to stretch the knots beyond the margin of safety for the next Spider-man: me. I had just started to make my way across, going hand over hand with my legs crossed over the hose, when it came undone and I was brought down hard on top of my right arm.
Do you remember a toy called Stretch Armstrong? You could stretch and twist his limbs in all kinds of inhuman ways. Well, that's what my right arm looked like between my wrist and elbow. It lay there next to me, distended and bent into the shape of an "S", and it actually took me a moment to get over the basic wrongness of that image before I realized it also hurt like nothing I had ever experienced in my short seven years. Fortunately, the skin hadn't broken, but both bones in my forearm were snapped clean through. I started screaming for someone to get my mother (ok, fine, I asked for my "mommy"), but the other Spider-men and various bystanders (neighborhood kids smart enough to predict the foolishness of our plan and sadistic enough to stick around to witness its inevitable failure) were frozen by horror and morbid curiosity at the sight of my misshapen arm. Out of the corner of my tear-filled eye, I could see one kid approaching nervously with a long stick, the kind perfectly suited for poking things with.
In the absence of empathy for my "discomfort", it took a bit more screaming and begging to shake them out of their stupor, and they finally retrieved a bonafide parent to tie my arm in a splint and take me to the hospital.
See, you cannot be too careful when choosing a hero to worship.
As an adult, my criteria for what makes a hero has changed greatly. Superpowers are no longer required (but still an asset). Instead, I think heroism is defined by responding selflessly to an adversity that appears independent of that person's actions. (Gee, thanks, Mr. Webster, but what the hell does that mean?) Here are a couple of examples:
People who have struggled against nature's most extreme environment climbing Mount Everest, sometimes losing comrades, sometimes even sacrificing their own lives to save comrades, have often been called heroes. I strongly disagree. They placed themselves directly in the path of danger, not the other way around. Climbing the world's highest peak is, by definition, the antithesis of selflessness. Great achievement? Sure. Heroic? Nope.
Captain Sully, airline pilot, is often touted as a hero for landing a failing AirbusA320 in the Hudson River and saving the lives of everyone aboard. Many will disagree with me, but I don't see his actions as being heroic. Heroes must have a choice, a choice between a selfish (usually easier or safer) response or a selfless (more difficult and possibly requiring great sacrifice) one. Captain Sully didn't really have a choice. I won't be so crass as to say he was only trying to save himself, but he would have done the same thing had he been alone. Any other pilot would have also made every attempt to land the plane safely. Would any other pilot have succeeded as well? Not likely. But skill alone doesn't make heroes.
(Don't get me wrong. I still think Captain Sully is one of the coolest men alive, and he deserves keys to cities, supermodel girlfriends, book deals, and the eternal gratitude of every passenger on that plane. I just reserve the title of hero for a different set of criteria.)
So, who makes the grade? For starters, my dad does. He hasn't singlehandedly stopped invading armies or dove into freezing waters to rescue drowning strangers, but he has had his unfair share of adversity over the past twenty years, and while he certainly complains (he's still a Gregson after all), he has never chosen the many opportunities he has had to take an easy way out. I can name many rich men, and famous men, who have no claim on my father's integrity. His choices have sometimes come at a great personal cost, and he's my hero for making them.
On a larger scale - as cliche as it sounds - the responders to 9/11, those who risked, lost, and continue to lose their lives because of their actions, their selfless choices, are rightfully immortalized as heroes.
And on a very small scale, a personal scale, there is Leanne.
I must have first met Leanne when I was about five years old, when both of our families lived near Vancouver. Honestly, I can't recall anything about her from that time; I was better acquainted with her older brother and sister. Leanne was only four, and really, how well can anyone get to know a four-year-old? Just because they can talk (unceasingly) doesn't mean they are any more fathomable than the family pet.
My time in BC was short, and we moved to Cardston, Alberta in time for me to start 1st Grade. But our families stayed in touch, and our respective travels sometimes allowed for brief visits. The time I remember most clearly was a trip to Echo Lake our families took together one summer. I was probably 13 or 14, and with Leanne just a year younger, I did notice her this time. But aside from taking the the occasional walk together, leaving my disgruntled brothers behind, I had no idea what to do about my teenage crush.
One afternoon, I had my head buried in a book (a very common state for me at that age), and Leanne wanted me to come out of the cabin to play down at the lake. It wouldn't have taken much convincing, but she threatened to kiss me if I didn't move. Well, there was no way in hell I was going to move now! She followed through with her threat - an innocent peck on the cheek - and we headed down to the dock for an afternoon of launching ourselves off of the rope swing.
This was my first kiss (well, aside from games of Kissing Tag in elementary school, but they didn't really count; I was usually caught by my second cousin...yecch!). This meant a lot to a teenage boy who rarely attracted a second glance from the opposite sex.
After that summer, we may have written each other a couple of times, but I'm pretty sure the next, and last time, I saw her was at her sister's wedding. We talked for hours, she told me about her boyfriend (bummer), and she told me she liked my long hair (heh).
Full disclosure: this was the mid-80's so I might, maybe, have had a haircut that resembled a mullet. Maybe.
Anyway, just a purely platonic day or two with her was once again a much-needed boost to my self-esteem. I have heard since that she has had this effect on many people; she had an optimism that wasn't corny or Pollyannish in any way, and was inexplicably contagious.
In the past several years, this positive outlook was put to the test when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2006. She fought back with a combination of modern medicine and determination, and her "charm offensive" seemed to work on the cancer. It looked like she had beaten it.
Sadly, this wasn't meant to last. Leanne was again diagnosed in 2008, and once more she faced it down. Then, in 2011, the cancer returned with a vengeance, appearing in her arm, spine and liver. This time it was going to require more help than she could find in this country, and her sister led a fundraising effort to send Leanne to a specialized clinic in the states. After a series of aggressive and alternative treatments, it looked like she might beat it again. Her optimism throughout the program so impressed the clinic that they filmed short interviews with her to promote their services.
If life were a TV-movie, this would be the part where image on the screen freezes and the closing credits tell you that Leanne goes on to live happily ever after, spending all of her waking hours supporting others in their fights against disease. Instead, the reality was that her last reprieve proved to be a very short one, and Leanne died on June 27th of this year, leaving behind her husband and two young children.
We had lost touch over the past couple of decades, so I didn't even know Leanne was ill, and only found out a week after her funeral. Honestly, I hadn't even thought of her for years, and I was therefore surprised to feel such a sense of loss at the news. I still don't receive second looks from women, I still need my confidence boosted from time to time, and hers was a friendship I now wish I had rekindled. If for nothing else, I might have learned to suffer the shittier parts of life more gracefully. (I know, referring to them as "shittier" shows how far I still have to go.)
Can one person's dignity and hope in the face of death change the world? Not likely. Still, Leanne wasn't given a choice of destination, but she did choose the brighter, yet harder, path to get there. It's something I constantly fail to do, and I bet most of the nearly six hundred people who attended her funeral struggle with it too. But we recognized someone who chose to be better. Having met Leanne, we feel more optimistic about our own chances, and we aspire to be the kind of hero she will always be to her family.