Chapter 3 - What exactly is a Hero?

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking tough guys in tights suits doing extraordinary things. Perhaps the guy wearing tight red underpants, red cape, funny shoes, and a big red S over his wide, muscular chest. Or maybe you’re thinking about the one who shoots spiderwebs from his wrists while swinging from tall building to tall building.

That’s not what I’m talking about. Those are super heroes.

I’m talking about real-life heroes.

To know what I mean, let’s pull out the dictionary again…

At origin, the word “hero” means defender and protector. It comes from the root *ser-, from which we get the word “servant.”

A real hero, then, is someone who uses his skills and unique talents to serve a cause greater than himself. In other words, it’s not about him.

What a hero does with his skills and talents doesn’t have to be something extra-ordinary. 

Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.

Or perhaps you like to paint, dance, play music, to sing, or write, like me. And what do writers do? When asked that question, one of my favorites said writers first admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe. And second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be.

To give you a better idea, I’ll tell you a story written by a man by the name of Loren Eiseley:

One day, an old man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking up something and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, the man asked, “What are you doing?” 

The youth replied, “I’m throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up… the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” 

“Son,” the man scoffed, “don’t you see there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? Throwing one won’t make a difference.” 

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said: “At least I made a difference for that one.” 

Loren Eiseley is one of my heroes. He grew up in a small town and his family was poor. As a young boy, Loren played in the nearby caves and creeks which helped him develop an early love for nature. When Loren was five years old, his brother gave him a copy of a book titled ‘Robinson Crusoe’ which Loren taught himself to read. Soon he was visiting the local library and read everything he could. When he was in high school, he said he wanted to become a nature writer, which he did. 

Eiseley is one of my heroes because he did what he most enjoyed doing and used his writing talent and his love of nature to write stories like the one of the boy and the starfish. 

Do you have to be physically strong to be a hero?

Not at all. 

Harry Potter isn’t. 

Nor was David, a young shepherd who defeated a nine-foot giant by the name of Goliath who wore full armor and kept bothering people in David’s village. David had no armor but was really good at flinging rocks with a sling. He was also smart and knew where Goliath’s armor had a crack; he knew where Goliath’s weakness was. David confronted Goliath and brought him down with just one stone-throw.

David was a legendary hero who might or might not have been real. Now I’ll tell you a story of a real hero who was probably the weakest man in the world. His name was Gandhi and he lived in India. 

As an old man, Gandhi looked kind of like Gollum from Lord of the Rings but without hair. He always wore round wire-rim glasses and a white tunic wrapped around his skinny body and a shawl over his shoulders. He ate simple vegetarian food, weighed one-hundred pounds, and was five-foot five. As a young boy, Gandhi was not very good at school but loved reading Hindu sacred writings and began to idolize Raja Harishchandra, the King who always told the truth. 

During most of Gandhi’s life, India was not independent but ruled by a group of people who came from far away and who had the strange idea that because they were the most powerful empire in the world at the time, they could go around the world taking over other people’s lands. Grrr! Another dumb human story. 

These people were the British, who rode horses, spoke funny, drank too much tea, played cricket, and wanted Gandhi and his people to bow down to a woman by the name of Victoria whom they called Queen, and who waved to the crowds by stiffly rotating her hand as if she were turning the pages of a book suspended in mid-air. The British also insisted Victoria had blue blood which is something I’ve always found strange. I think someone should have just pricked her thumb with a needle to discover that her blood was red just like everyone else’s and be done with that nonsense.

Gandhi wanted India to be independent so he led peaceful protests to make that happen. When the British decided to charge a tax on salt, for example, Gandhi led a 250-mile march to the ocean to make his own salt. His non-violent methods were very different from the way the British treated Hindus and that’s what made Gandhi so remarkable and effective. 

Remember the stupid human story I told you earlier which said that if someone pokes your eye you should poke theirs? Gandhi was the one who said that if we all did that, by and by the whole world would end up blind.

While physically weak, Gandhi was no push-over. After ten years, Gandhi’s patience, courage, and non-violent methods earned India’s independence. Pretty darn heroic, if you ask me. 

Often the weakest things can be the strongest. The silk a spider uses to spin its web is one of the strongest natural materials in existence.

Let’s say you and I are playing rock-paper-scissors and I allowed you to pull out a fourth thing. What would that be? (Can’t be nuclear bomb).

If you said “water,” you’re a genius, just like me!

Throw a giant rock into a lake and you’ll notice how the water’s surface bends under the weight of the rock and then swallows it. The water’s surface remains intact. Now, take another rock and place it under a constant drip of water. Over time, the water will wear the rock down and break it apart, just like it carved-out America's Grand Canyon… just like Gandhi wore-down the mighty British empire.

Sit by a river and watch it run. When its water finds a boulder blocking its way, it doesn’t fight it head-on. It finds the rock’s undefended flank - just like David discovered Goliath’s weak spot - and it flows over and around it. Water is unstoppable. 

Take trees as another example. Many would say an oak tree is stronger than a palm tree but put them next to each other and watch what happens when a hurricane strikes. The oak tree – all stiff and almighty – will probably snap in two, while the “weakling” palm tree will bend and sway and never crack. 

As you grow up, life will throw many rocks at you; you will find giant boulders blocking your way; more than one hurricane will probably strike you. When that happens, remember the water and the palm tree.

There was a time when the world needed men to be physically strong, to push, pull, lift, and carry… to fight wars. But in today’s world, with advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, more and more jobs – even that of a soldier - are being done by robots which is good news because it frees us to use the powers only humans have: curiosity, imagination, creativity, and our ability to communicate and cooperate with large groups of other humans. 

Take a look at today’s leaders - in business, science, politics, and the arts - and you’ll notice that most of them are not buff and ripped. Actually, they’re kind of nerdy, which, when I was a boy, used to get me teased, but today should be one of the greatest compliments: a sign of great things to come. In fact, in today’s world, reading and writing skills are the biggest predictors of success.

Do you have to be an extrovert to be a hero?

An extrovert is someone very social and outgoing. 

I’m not one of them. 

Neither are one out of every two or three people you know. Neither was Dr. Seuss, or Steve Jobs from Apple, or Gandhi who said that in a gentle way you can shake the world.

In her book, ‘Quiet Power,’ Susan Cain said that introverts enjoy the company of others but also like time alone. They can have great social skills and also be private and keep to themselves. They are observant. They might listen more than they talk (remember the difference between a wise man and a fool?). Being an introvert is about having a deep inner life and considering that inner life to be important. Both shy and introverted people make great listeners. And it’s through listening that they tend to be good at observing, learning, and maturing.

What about fearless? Do you have to be fearless to be a hero? 

Not either. 

Fear is natural. It protects you from danger. It is what keeps an alert zebra from being eaten by a hungry lion… most of the time. 

In chapter eight of 'The Prisoner of Azkaban', Harry Potter tells Lupin that he didn't much think of Voldemort, but he remembered the Dementors of which he was more afraid. 

"I see," said Lupin thoughtfully. "Well, well... I'm impressed," he smiled slightly at the look of surprise on Harry's face. "That suggests that what you fear most of all is fear. Very wise, Harry." 

Being afraid is natural; staying afraid isn’t. Staying afraid makes us cowards. It keeps us from trying new things. Facing our fears and working through them makes us courageous which is one of the Life Forces we’ll explore later on.

When I was your age (how old are you anyway?) I used to be afraid of waves. I wouldn’t swim past the first surf line. My father would tell me it was okay to be afraid, but it was better to be respectful. “Respect the power of the ocean and know your limitations,” he said. “Stay alert and slowly push through your limitations until you develop new strengths which will give you courage.” 

I was soon swimming past the last line of crashing waves!

Being reckless only makes you drown.

Must a hero be invulnerable? Must he never cry or show pain? 

Nonsense

Unless you’re ‘The Thing,’ the Marvel Comics superhero who’s made of rock. Pinch yourself real hard right now and tell me you’re made of rock. Hurts, doesn’t it? It’s supposed to. You’re human. And if you can’t experience sadness or pain, you can’t experience happiness either. Who would want that?

Remember Barack Obama who cried seven times in public during the eight years he held the most powerful job in the world?

The trick is to not let emotions control you. 

It’s okay to be angry sometimes, mostly when we face injustice or unfairness, but there’s a big difference between being angry and becoming violent. Becoming violent means you have allowed a positive emotion (anger) turn into a negative one. 

It’s also okay to be sad, but if you let this emotion control you, you’ll become depressed. 

If you feel anxious, but don’t take the time to figure out why, anxiety will take control and paralyze you.

The best way to prevent an emotion from controlling you is to talk to it. 

I find it helpful to draw a picture of the emotion before I start asking it questions. My ‘Anger’ is always a giant, with sharp teeth, bushy hair, long, dirty beard and mustache, pointy ears, eyes on fire. Once I’m done drawing it, I ask my ‘Anger’: “What do you want from me? Why are you coming out of your dark cave?” 

What I often discover is that my anger has nothing to do with what I think I am angry about. For example, I might get angry at someone just because they didn’t wash their own dishes after dinner. I call them “lazy” in my head and become rude toward them. But when I take the time to understand my anger, I realize I am really angry at myself, usually because I have been lazy earlier that day. I was simply projecting my own faults onto someone else.

Someone once said that if you are honest and sensitive and really interested in getting rid of injustice and evil in the world, it makes sense to start with yourself.

What about making mistakes? Do heroes sometimes fail?

In the movie ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ Batman tells his trusted butler that he has failed to save the city of Gotham. The old man replies: “Why do we fall sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

How would we ever learn if we didn’t make mistakes?

Real heroes are not perfect and that’s what makes them so interesting. Like you and I, they are flawed, often afraid, sometimes full of self-doubt. In fact, there are as many imperfections in me as there are craters on the surface of the moon.

When working on a book that would later win him one of the greatest prices in literature, a writer I admire very much kept a diary where he wrote down how he felt about himself and the book. 

Listen to what he said:

"My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be."

You can almost smell his fear and his anxiety. 

By writing them down, he was talking to his emotions and working through them. He was in control, and slowly began to realize what he had to do:

"Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now. I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does."

John Steinbeck turned his self-doubt, his fear and anxieties, into courage. He’s one of my heroes precisely because of that, and not because he won the Pulitzer Prize.

Much of the time, in the news, television, or social media, one hears stories of very successful people that made it to the top. They show us images of how special their life is, how much money they have, and how happy they seem to be. But they rarely show us what happened in the in-between - their struggles, their moments of fear and self-doubt, the many times they stumbled and fell. They make it look too easy.

They also don’t tell us of what they had to sacrifice to get to the top. 

When I became a successful businessman, I had no time to be with my two daughters. I was too busy keeping myself at the top. Had I taken the time to know myself, I would have discovered that I valued being with my daughters more than I did making money. I had to lose everything later on to find this out and start living my life based on what I knew was more important to me; what made me truly happy. Lucky for me, it wasn’t too late.

The other thing media never tell us are the lucky accidents that happened to those that made it to the top. We start believing that all we need is talent and hard work and things will work out. I hate to be the one telling you this but that is mostly not the case. Stuff happens or doesn’t happen. The Universe is full of chance and accidents; good fortune and bad. Get used to it. Most of us will never make it to the top. 

I am pretty sure I will never become a famous writer. But that is not why I write. I write because I can’t see myself doing anything else. I love what I do and enjoy every moment I sit in front of my laptop struggling with words. It never feels like work. I write as my way of making the best use of my talents, and I work really hard at it. I write hoping to change lives, to heal, to serve my fellow humans. Will I feel like a “loser” (I hate that word) if I don’t make it to the top? Not at all! Losers are those that never fail because they never try. The proper use of the word “loser” is for one who had the opportunity to do something heroic but didn’t, and, therefore, lost-out on that which makes life exciting.

Say you make it one of your goals in life to climb Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Say that for some reason beyond your control – a wintry storm perhaps, or massive avalanche – you never make it to the top. If, during your journey, you were only focused on the peak of Mt. Everest and paid no attention to the beauty that was all around you while you climbed, your loss will have doubled. 

And why is it that most people shown on TV and social media are celebrities, and sports stars, and rich businessmen? 

Why is it that we never hear much about people like Dillon Hill, a California student who dropped out of university to help his childhood friend complete a bucket list of adventures before he died? Why is Kevin Booth not making headlines all over the world? Kevin is homeless. One morning, he found a brown paper bag outside the front door of a food bank with seventeen thousand dollars in cash! He waited until they opened and turned the money in. What about ten-year-old Isiah Francis and eleven-year-old Jeremiah Grimes who, after a fire broke out, rushed into a neighbor’s home in Orlando, Florida and rescued a 1-year-old and an 8-month-old? 

The world is upside-down if you ask me.

Do you have to be really smart to be a hero?

That depends on your definition of smart. If you’re thinking about your classmate who always gets A’s on his homework and tests, think again. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, graduated high school with a GPA of 2.65 (that’s a B minus). J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, graduated from university with roughly a C average. Martin Luther King Jr. got only one A in his four years at college.

Grades mostly measure how good you are at retaining information. They don’t measure qualities like creativity, emotional-intelligence, leadership, or how well you work in teams. These are the skills most needed in the world today.

People who obsess about their grades sometimes end up taking easier classes so their average doesn’t drop. Those who are more interested in learning will not mind the occasional B or C, and will push themselves out of their comfort zone by taking more difficult classes. 

What about the disabled? 

Can someone who can’t walk or talk be a hero? 

Stephen Hawking couldn’t do either but that did not stop him from discovering and developing important ideas about the Universe and how it works.

Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight at the age of three due to an infection following an accident at his father’s workshop, went on to invent the braille reading and writing system, which forever changed the lives of the blind and the visually impaired.

Are heroes only men? 

What if I told you that a young girl who also happened to be deaf and blind and who communicated by tracing words on the palm of her hand became an important writer and activist who advocated for the blind and for the right of women to vote. Her name was Helen Keller.

Or what about Malala Yousafzai who at age fifteen was shot in the head because she insisted that girls should have the right to go to school. She lived in Pakistan, and the rulers there didn’t think that was a good idea. Malala survived and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She once said that when the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.

In the late 1950’s, the power of Rachel Carson’s single voice warned the United States about the dangers to the environment and people’s health from the careless use of DDT, which is a powerful pesticide used in agriculture to combat pests. Many people wanted to silence her, but she pressed on. Her courage and determination ultimately led to the nationwide ban on DDT and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Carson is known as the woman who started the modern environmental movement. She saved our butts.

Later on, I’ll tell you other great stories of girl heroes. 

Is one ever too old to be a hero?

I just read a story about the oldest man in Australia. His name is Alfred, and he is 109 years old. Alfred lives in a retirement home close to Phillip Island where penguins live. 

In 2001, a large ship carrying oil had an accident and the oil spilled into the water close to the island. When something like that happens, the sticky oil covers the penguins’ feathers making them heavier which makes penguins less able to float and prevents them from regulating their inner temperature. Penguins also swallow the oil when preening their feathers.

Following that oil spill, many little penguins ended up at the Phillips Island wildlife rescue center. To keep them from ingesting the oil, workers at the rescue center needed tiny sweaters to put on the penguins.

Alfred heard about this and decided to teach himself to knit and began making sweaters to help the little penguins.

So, you see? You don’t have to be young, physically strong, outgoing, fearless, invulnerable, infallible, a genius, able-bodied, or a man to be a hero. 

You just need to care deeply about something and do something about it.

Who is not a Hero?

Just having a good voice and knowing how to sing doesn’t make you a hero. Being really good at football or basketball doesn’t make you one either.

A movie star is not a hero. It’s just their job. They’re just playing a role. Sometimes they play the role of a hero, or heroine. A guy by the name of Mark Hamill played the role of one of my boyhood heroes: Luke Skywalker, from Star Wars. I wanted to be brave like Skywalker but couldn’t care less about how famous or rich Mark Hamill was.

Even being President doesn’t make you a hero, and, oftentimes, the superpower of the President goes to people’s heads and makes them waste the opportunity for doing something good for their people and the world.

A hero doesn’t use his power or skills only to benefit himself or to show off. The young man in the starfish story wasn’t flinging starfish out into the ocean to see how many times he could make them skip over the water’s surface.

Heroes don’t use their powers to hurt others. Villains do. Heroes don’t hurt or kill unless forced to in the name of justice. Heroes heal, and save starfish. They figure out what they like to do, work hard at developing their talents, and then use those talents to make a little part of the world exactly as they would like it to be.

Does each person need a hero?

We all do.

We need people we can look up to; people whom we can admire so we can see what is possible and stretch ourselves every day to be the best version of ourselves. But it is also very important that we make a list of the things which make us admire someone.

Jesus of Nazareth is one of my heroes not because I’m a Christian or because I think it would be cool to walk on water, but because I admire men of conviction who are willing to sacrifice everything – even their own lives – for an ideal… something they believe in.

I admire Gandhi for his patience and for the way he became like water and wore-down the British until their empire crumbled.

I admire LeBron James, not because he is the only player in NBA history to average at least 25 points per game for 13 consecutive seasons, but because he used his fame to raise $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

I don’t admire Cristiano Ronaldo for being the soccer player with the most goals in the UEFA Champions League, but because he auctioned one of his trophies for six hundred thousand Euros and donated the entire amount to the ‘Make a Wish Foundation’.

In your Warrior's Workbook, you’ll find a section where you can list your heroes and the things that makes you admire them.

What happens when our dreams don’t come true, no matter what we do, or hard we fight? When life presents us with obstacles we just can’t push away or dodge? 

You’ll learn a lot about yourself and others when that happens. 

My stepmother, for instance, wanted to move to the American West when she was in her early twenties. She wanted to work at an Indian reservation and help children. That was her dream. But almost at once, both her parents got really sick and she had to care for them for many years. She couldn’t do what she wanted or was good at doing. She did what had to be done, and she did it with a smile, with great care and devotion, until they died. My stepmother is one of my heroes precisely because of this.

What about the underdogs: people who face the greatest challenges, but have neither power, fame, or fortune?

Many believe the only way to make a difference in the world is to first be an important person with power or a lot of money, or both. They obviously never heard history’s greatest underdog story, the story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

(Chapter 4)

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