WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, JOE DIMAGGIO?
WHO ARE THE HEROES OF TODAY?
By Max E. Kirk
September 18, 2018
Recently Bob Tibbetts performed a service none of us can envy. He delivered a moving eulogy for his slain daughter Mollie Tibbetts. Part of his tribute to his daughter caught my attention for tonight’s topic. Mr. Tibbetts stated in part: “Today we need to turn the page. We’re at the end of a long ordeal. But we need to turn toward life - Mollie’s life – because Mollie is nobody’s victim. Mollie is my hero.”
This evening I would like to reflect a bit on heroes and the actions we might consider heroic. Was Mollie Tibbetts, by all accounts a bright and optimistic young woman, a hero? Was she a hero solely because she was the victim of heinous crime? There must be more. There were untold interactions of love and growth between Mollie and her family that led her father to call her, “my hero.” Was she a hero and what is heroic?
All of us have our own heroes. It may be a parent, a mentor, a co-worker, a spouse. For many their hero may be a physician who cures their cancer or their sponsor in AA. I once attended a funeral service for a crusty old lawyer I knew to be a long time member of AA. At the service was another professional who was well known to me who literally broke down in tears at the passing of our mutual friend, telling me repeatedly that the departed had saved his life and was his true hero. You cannot deny such feelings and such emotions and to my friend his AA sponsor was truly his hero. The passer-by who pulls someone from a wrecked automobile just before it bursts into flames may be called a “hero.” The governor of Iowa has a special ceremony at the Iowa State Fair, I think, to honor heroes. Our local TV station KWWL sponsors its “Heroes Among Us” every year. Most of those individuals were thrust into circumstances that fortunately brought out of the best in them, enabling them to save and preserve a life and earning the accolade of “hero.” My intent is certainly not to trivialize any of these efforts to recognize the honorable, decent and often noble service of such persons. Instead, the common and increasingly frequent use of the word “hero” to characterize and describe various actions and events makes me wonder what is a hero anyway? I’ve asked each of you to write the names of two persons who according to your value and belief system would qualify as heroes. These persons need not be ancient and they need not be current. To discuss our heroic choices I think it’s best to utilize some definitions and other examples to provide us a framework if you will of what others consider heroes to be.
It is certainly easy to find a definition of the word hero. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a hero as: “a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; b: an illustrious warrior; c: a person admired for achievements or noble qualities; d: one who shows great courage.”
I might also note that an alternate definition given of “hero” is a torpedo-shaped luncheon sandwich.
A hero is defined in Greek mythology as a person of divine ancestry who has courage, strength and is celebrated by both the gods and people. Ancient Greek heroes characterize traits of strength, ability, resourcefulness, honor and pride. Some examples of heroes in Greek mythology would include Hercules who is best known for the twelve labors he had to accomplish in order to regain his fame and redemption for an older crime. Hercules of course was poisoned and decided that death was preferable to the constant pain of life. He built a funeral pyre but could not find anyone to light it for him causing him to appeal to the gods for help. Zeus sent a lightning bolt to consume Hercules’s mortal body and he went to live with the gods.
Prometheus is another fine example of a Greek hero. As you know, Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the benefit of all mankind. As a punishment he was chained by Zeus to a rock where eagles picked out his liver on a daily basis. Being a mortal however his liver would grow back and the cycle would continue.
Odysseus helped the Greeks win the Trojan War and is probably best remembered for “The Oddyssey” which is of course dedicated to his adventures returning after the war to his home, Ithaca. Along the way, Odeysseus had to fight with gods, monsters, and after ten years was able to see his wife Penelope and his homeland.
These characters are by no means a comprehensive survey of mythological Greek heroes. They serve to isolate some characteristics however that may be useful for discussion. I would summarize the characteristics of the Greek heroes as encompassing at least the following:
5. Noble qualities;
6. Great courage.
Wikipedia defines hero (masculine) or heroine (feminine) as a real person or main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength. The original hero type of classical epics did such things for the sake of glory and honor. The ancient concept of heroes seems to tilt towards performing great deeds for the classical goals of pride and fame. Such heroes often strive for military conquest and the fame that can be achieved from such acts.
More contemporary heroes are probably not those favored by the gods or those having “god-like” qualities as did the ancient Greeks. Still, the concept of super-natural abilities seems to persist in the concept of heroes. Nietzsche says, “Dead are all the gods.” With this he proposes a theory of the “superman.” This is is a superior transcendent human being who would give new meaning to life and would be Nietzsche’s hero for mankind.
In his work “On Heroes, Hero-Worship and The Heroic in History,” Thomas Carlyle establishes criteria for what makes a hero or a heroic action. According to Carlyle, a hero must: “1. conquer fear; 2. be earnest and sincere and have a vision that penetrates beyond what the average eye might see; and 3. must be an inspiration to others or someone who can ‘light the way.’”
From Carlysle we might add three additional criteria to the concept of hero:
1. Supernatural abilities;
2. The ability to conquer fear; and
3. An inspiration to others.
Joseph Campbell was an American author and teacher probably best known for his work in the field of comparative mythology. Published in 1949 his work “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” studies ancient mythology and the hero’s journey. Campbell writes from a contemporary view believing that the heroes of today differ greatly from the heroes of the past. He writes that the scientific model of research has so transformed human life that the “long inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed.” Campbell says there is no hiding place for the gods from the searching telescope and microscope. The society that once supported the gods no longer exists because mankind today finds meaning in the self-expressive individual. The hero of today must help restore a spiritual balance to secular society. Restoring a spiritual balance to secular society is not the work of government or religion according to Campbell. On religion, he states, “The universal triumph of the secular state has thrown all religious organizations into such a definitely secondary, and finally ineffectual position that religious pantomime is hardly more today than a sanctimonious exercise for Sunday morning, whereas business ethics and patriotism stand for the remainder of the week.” According to Cambell, “The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.” Campbell, pg. 334. This leads me to add another factor to add to our list of heroic criteria: restoring spiritual balance.
From the ancients to the contemporary view we have ten criteria that must be present in some measure for a person to be a “hero.” To summarize, these are as follows:
5. Possessing noble qualities
6. Great courage
7. Supernatural abilities
8. Conquer fear
10. Restores spiritual balance.
Let’s look at some contemporary examples of actions to see if they fit some or all of these criteria.
Upon his death, Senator John S. McCain was honored by thousands of his fellow Americans and often referred to as a “real hero.” In an editorial of August 27, 2018, the St. Louis Post Dispatch stated that Sen. McCain would go down in history “as a hero and inspiration for his devotion to public service and self-sacrifice.”
Also addressing the passing of Sen. McCain, columnist Kathleen Parker recently summed up her views this way: “What made McCain a hero isn’t that he endured immense suffering. It doesn’t take a hero to be shot down or captured. We tend to overuse the term hero these days. The definition of a hero is someone who supercedes the ordinary call of duty and puts his or her own life in peril, or takes a dangerous risk for the sake of another.”
Rock superstar David Bowie left us with many memorable ballads. One of my favorites is his song, “Heroes.” When interviewed about his intent, Bowie stated that the song “Heroes” was for the faceless man who deserved the chance to be a hero. To me the most memorable refrain of this work goes as follows:
“We can beat them,
We can be heroes, just for one day.
We can beat them, forever and ever.
We can be heroes, just for one day,
We can be us, just for one day.”
On September 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 with regularly-scheduled early morning non-stop service from Newark, NJ to San Francisco, CA, departed the terminal at 8:42 a.m. The flight’s takeoff had been delayed for nearly 45 minutes due to air traffic at Newark International Airport. The departure time was just minutes before the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center. Flight 93 carried seven crew members and 33 passengers and was at less than half of its maximum capacity. Also on the flight were four hijackers who had successfully boarded the plane with knives and box cutters. The late departure of Flight 93 disrupted the terrorists’ timeline for launching their attack. Unlike the other hijackers they did not attempt to gain control of the aircraft until nearly 40 minutes into the flight. Meanwhile, warnings were being sent about possible cockpit intrusions. At 9:19 the pilots of Flight 93 were informed of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Moments later, the terrorists successfully invaded the plane’s cockpit and air traffic controllers heard what they thought to be two may-day calls amid sounds of a struggle. At 9:32 the hijacking was complete and the flight data recorder showed that the terrorists reset the auto pilot turning the plane around to head back east.
In the back of Flight 93 passengers and crew made a series of calls on their cell phones and in-flight air phones, informing family members and friends on the ground of the plane’s hijacking. When they heard of the three other hijacked flights in New York City and Washington, D.C., the passengers realized that their plane was involved in a larger terrorist plot and would likely be used to carry out further attacks on the United States. After brief discussion a vote was taken and the passengers decided to fight back against their hijackers. One of the passengers, Thomas Burnett, Jr., told his wife over the phone, “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.” Another passenger, Todd Beamer, was heard over an open line saying, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”
At 9:57 the passengers and crew aboard Flight 93 began their counter-attack as recorded by the cock-pit voice recorder. The hijackers maneuvered the plane in an attempt to throw the passengers off balance deciding at last to crash the plane before reaching their final destination. At 10:02 a voice was recorded saying, “Yes put it in and put it down.” Several other voices chanted, “Allah is great.” Flight 93 rolled onto its back and plowed into an empty field near Shanksville, PA at 580 miles per hour.
In his song, “Mrs. Robinson” Paul Simon concludes with these lyrics which to me signify both loss and yearning:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you?
Woo woo woo
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away,
Hey hey hey hey hey hey
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away. If Joltin’ Joe is a hero then he has left us. Have we been abandoned by our heroes and if so, why? Are there heroes among us? I don’t feel we have to look any further than the passengers on Flight 93 who in the face of certain death decided not to cower but rather use their strength, resourcefulness, and courage to restore balance in the situation thrust upon them. So long as we have those among us who are willing to say, “Let’s roll” to right the wrong, we do not lack for heroes.