Where Is the Hero In Us?

by on September 10, 2019 · 0 comments

in Election

By Joni Halpern

Dear Ohio,

We have been flinging the word “hero” around these United States for quite some time, mostly using it to refer to anyone in uniform, and once in a while, to civilians who risk their lives to save another.  Without denigrating the title bestowed on these worthy persons, it is time to call attention to the missing person in all of us — the American hero.

You might have forgotten this character, for he or she has been buried beneath so much angst, anger, partisanship, and turmoil within each of us that it is speculative whether there is anything at all we can do to resurrect this person.

From the time we were children, we were raised on American heroism.  True, much was left out of the story.  Not everyone acted as a hero in our history.  Many were afraid to sacrifice wealth, social standing, jobs, career advancement, or just the quiet routine of their lives, for others.  Still, every American has been raised on the idea that we are a people willing to sacrifice everything in defense of freedom, fairness, democracy, and the worthiness of all who suffer oppression.

In service of that idea, Americans have demonstrated certain characteristics that made us feel we could do anything.

We were the “bad boys” of the Western World, with an irreverent sense of humor, but good hearts.  We might stroll into any sacred place and desecrate it with our ignorance, but if people needed help, we would stick out our necks and stand up to bullies and oppressors.  We would sacrifice some of our personal or national treasury to help bring food to the starving and medicine to the sick.

We would help restore nations after they were destroyed in war or catastrophe, and we would contribute to fledgling economies so the vast abundance we enjoyed would be spread across the world.  Not every American agreed with this, but by and large, a majority felt the fundamental freedoms to which we attributed our success obligated us in some way to assist those who never had a chance.

Not only did we make these sacrifices for strangers.  We made them for Americans.  We recognized that businesses would never find it profitable to help people who had very little, so we built a governmental infrastructure to help the elderly, the sick, the disabled, veterans, and children.

We contributed to public schools without bellyaching much about it.  We lauded ourselves for sharing the mutual sacrifices that supported our remarkable achievements in science, engineering, farming, urban development, the arts, music, medicine and every other endeavor known to mankind.  We were not consumers so much as we were creators.  We, the everyday Americans, did not judge ourselves solely by how much we were able to acquire, but by what we did with our hands, our minds, our hearts and our souls.

We were heroes.  We had superpowers of energy, vision, and self-sacrifice.  We could not be beaten because we never quit — until….

We began to experience the shape-shifting aspects of defeat.  We learned from wars that never seemed to end that we could not address every worldwide concern with military might.  We learned that some problems such as poverty and disease require more than our brief American attention span.  They can only be mitigated by patient attention and enduring investment.  When the work we did with wood, soil, coal, and steel was taken from us and given to those who could do it more cheaply, we wrung our hands, wondering how to find a proper measure for our lives.  We were left with a global role as mere consumers.

Eventually, we could only see ourselves as shiny reflections in bigger and better televisions, in the flashing faces of watches and computer screens, in the envious eyes of others who wanted what we had.  Our greatest worth to the world was to buy what others produced.  “Consumer confidence” became the measure of our value to our own government and to the world.

Gradually we have come to embrace a new American Dream in which we are not heroes, but victims.  We conceive of ourselves as having been taken advantage of by nations that are bleeding us dry, technologies that are destroying our livelihoods, and destitute immigrants who are overrunning our country.  We never admit that we have departed from our true heroism — our role as citizens vital to our own democracy and contributors to a better world.  We blame government for selling us out, but perhaps we are the ones who have sold out the hero within us.

We have found the work of a citizen democracy too hard, too time-consuming.  We can’t go to school board meetings or City Council meetings.  We can’t write our congresspersons or senators.  Most of us won’t walk precincts or answer phones to help a candidate.  We can’t spare a moment to read the newspaper or a book about current events. We can’t even talk to our neighbors because of our discomfort with divergent opinions.  By the time we leave our one, or two or even three jobs, all we want is to go home, eat a prepared meal in front of the TV, and fall asleep.

Perhaps you can help us go back, Dear Ohio, to the memory of where we were when we lost our way.  Where were we when we gave up being the resourceful, irreverent, innovative, courageous people who formed a citizen democracy and kept it going for almost 230 years?

In your area of the country, there will be many people who say we lost our way when we honored our First Amendment and took the Ten Commandments out of our courtrooms and schools.  But they would be wrong.

American heroism is still inside us, buried under the yard sales of a lifetime of acquisitions, hidden beneath the lethargy of our incessant screen time, waiting to be awakened by a clarifying event in which we recognize once again that we cannot relegate the heroism of a free nation solely to people in uniform or to the rare person who puts it all on the line.  We are all heroes if we are willing once again to make the sacrifice.


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