What is a hero? Is it someone who possesses super human qualities? Is it someone who can do something better than anyone else? Certainly the world of Marvel Comics and their ilk paint through their comics and graphic novels a universe of heroes. Most of them, though, are tortured souls whose stories lines get darker and darker as time moves on. Growing up, many young boys and girls made heroes of sports stars and actors or other entertainers. I remember in 8th grade, we were asked by the teacher to put on the board who our hero was. The boys put up the latest baseball or football star, the girls had an array of actresses and models. I stood there with my mind blank. I know I wanted to put down my grandfather, but everyone was putting down famous people. I think it was then and there that I understood what a hero really was: someone who made me want to be a better person.
I never got into the Superman and other super heroes. They were noble but unrealistic. I never got into making heroes out of athletes or entertainers. I enjoyed their talent, but there was nothing there that drew me to model my life after. Now, there were people I knew: teachers, priests, relatives, and others I knew that inspired me. The ones that inspired me were strong yet kind, they were courageous but low keyed, they had a sense of humor and a winning smile. My heroes made me want to be smarter, stronger, and a generally better person. The trouble was that most of my heroes had darker sides that I started to understand as I got older. I started to see their flaws. Some, including some of the priests I had admired, indulged in illegal behavior. As upset as I got at some, I couldn't dismiss that despite their flaws, they inspired me to good things, and via negativa, showed me the trap falls to avoid. Those lessons were equally powerful.
Maybe it is the realization as you get older that not everyone is as they seem. Maybe it is because our society just seems to get darker and darker. It seems now we delight in knocking heroes down. I notice in some of what I see in various venues that the superhero is so often a dark figure, even a deeply flawed figure. The scandals of athletes and entertainers seem a daily occurrence. Professions I grew up respecting (clergy, law enforcement, teachers) are now popularly defined by the fallen minorities of the profession. Where are the heroes? Where are the ones who propel us to want to be better people?
Truth is, they are all around us. They don't wear capes and leotards as a costume. They do have flaws, but the way they overcome their flaws are perhaps their greatest super power. I find heroes in the stories of the saints who overcame great personal sin, who refused to let the devil conquer them, and rose to great feats of courage and wisdom. These men and women found the ultimate hero, a hero without flaw, in God. I found my heroes in those who were prophetic, who risk being unpopular and mocked, so as to call us back from the brink. I found these heroes in everyday life, in the form of every person who actively tries to lift up the voiceless, who embrace sacrifice and suffering for those whom they love. I find my heroes in the quiet daily acts of mercy they do, in the selflessness they adhere to, in the life of prayer they live.
These heroes make me want to be a better person. They make me want to be a better priest. They help me move beyond defining myself by my worst traits, not by ignoring them, but by conquering them. They make me want to a better man. They are all around us, going about their lives. We need to learn how to see them, even to see them beyond their failings.
Finally, we need to be heroes. Cosplay doesn't make this happen. Playing a video game doesn't either. To be hero means we find the grace to conquer our faults, the grace to stand tall and to stand our ground, that we raise our voice when needed, and that we cultivate a selflessness in who we are and model that for those placed in our care.
My advice is simple: Looking for hero? Start be being a hero!