Last weekend I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, in my mind a silly action/adventure film starring some second tier comic book characters. I expected to be amused and entertained and I was. The characters in the film were heroes in that they did, reluctantly, save the universe. They were also conniving, sarcastic, opportunistic, and self-centered, each with a closet full of skeletons, but when faced with the annihilation of an entire planet and perhaps the universe, managed to find their better selves and get the job done. They were definitely heroes … flawed, grudging heroes.
Fast forward a couple of days to a conversation I had with a colleague. One of our former students, Chuck Nadd, graduated from our school, went on to West Point, served in Afghanistan, and last year was welcomed home to a parade that was made into a Super Bowl commercial. My colleague mentioned that she had not heard from him lately. A simple search revealed that he had dropped off the grid. His blog and Facebook pages had been shut down and there was no recent trace of him. I might not have thought anything of it, as he is in the military, but I also stumbled across this and other articles that were far from positive. In this case, Lieutenant Nadd was both praised for his brave service and castigated for his “excessive” self-promotion.
Now I know we want to hold up our leaders as perfect heroes, to lift up athletes, movie and music stars, politicians, soldiers, and CEOs as examples of greatness, but let’s be honest. That hasn’t worked out so well. An athlete who is awesome on the court can be less so at home. The CEO attempting to cure cancer doesn’t recycle. And the leader of the band might be less a hero and more a person with some combination of talent, luck, looks, and money. Every time someone stands up and does something great, somebody else digs around a little bit and finds some dirt. Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s journalism. Maybe it makes you drop off the grid. Whatever this is, it seems there are no perfect heroes.
I think that’s because the kind of hero we’re looking for only exists in comic books. We can’t find our culture’s version of hero because heroes are also people, humans with strengths and flaws, warts and wisdom. And here’s a newsflash. Comic book heroes aren’t real.
So what do we do with this? How do we function in a world where all the leaders and heroes fall a little short? Given our penchant to tear people down, do we conclude that there’s no real heroes, no leaders worth following?
Of course not. There ARE real heroes and leaders, lots of them. There’s my friend Julie with diabetes who is determined to do twenty-five marathons in twenty-five years. She inspires me. And there’s my friend Cyndi, whose son had cancer, a brain tumor. She gave up a career to stay home with him for as long as needed, to give him everything she could. He’s in high school now even though doctors gave him only a few years to live. Her strength gives me perspective. There are kids standing up to bullies, athletes raising money for charity, soldiers, cops, and firemen risking their lives for strangers, church groups feeding the homeless, citizens standing in the rain to vote, and the lady who returned my wallet when I dropped it at the store, money intact.
Every one of these people is a hero to me in some way. Each has inspired me to live my life a little better. And that’s the point. These amazing and probably flawed people are everywhere and can inspire us if we let them.
But even if none of these folks strikes you as inspiring or worth following, there’s always one more leader in your life worth considering. You. You can act on your good intentions. You can follow your inner best self. You can be the hero you’ve been looking for.
I know it’s hard. Given our culture’s need to find dirt, it would be easy to let fear stop us from doing good things, from stepping into the spotlight to lead and become somebody’s hero. But we have to believe that failing to try is even worse than being a flawed hero.
It’s likely that every day we have the chance to be a leader, a hero. Each time we have to again choose to step up. We know that doing what’s right might expose our flaws, our humanity. But we have to remember, when we’re saving the universe or returning a wallet, not a whole lot else matters. We must choose in that moment, that fleeting instant when we can make a difference, to go ahead and put on our capes and do something great, even if it means people find out we’re not perfect, that we don’t recycle. Try not to worry about recycling right now. We can do that tomorrow.