Watching President Obama the other night say to Daniel Hernandez, “I’m sorry. You may deny it, but we have decided you are a hero,” and then seeing the young intern play down his new-found status yet again in a CNN interview, got me thinking a bit about what constitutes a true hero and while I probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, I will say it anyway . . . but first let me go ‘round the mulberry bush a few times . . .
Super-heroes on film have come a long way, baby. A few nights ago I watched, finally, Iron Man, the 2008 film with Robert Downey Jr. I rarely go to movies in theaters, mainly because they are too damn loud, so I wait for the movies I want to see to come on cable, where I can control the volume. In the case of Iron Man, it seemed to take forever. Anyway, it was all right, not quite as good as I had been led to believe, though. Of course, the real stars of these movies are the special effects.
I’m not into comic books much these days. But I was once. I envy the kids today who are into comics and who get to see these films at a time in their lives when they can really appreciate the mega-coolness of flying and displaying super powers. Back in the day, my day, special effects were primitive, and in retrospect, pretty lame.
Take the first appearance of Superman on film: In the 1948 serial starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, the flying business was accomplished by switching to animation. Very obvious. Apparently, they had tried to suspend Alyn with hidden wires, but the wires wouldn’t stay hidden. When Superman came to television, in the series starring George Reeves, they had him lie on a board “filmed in front of aerial footage on back-projection screen, or against a neutral background which would provide a matte which would be optically combined with a swish-pan or aerial shot” (Wikipedia). The board was obvious, too. Even to a five-year old like me. But I loved the Superman show anyway.
I remember crying on my mother’s bed the day they took Superman off the air, prompted possibly by George Reeve’s suicide, information about which my parents withheld from me. Instead of The Adventures of Superman, they had some show with big kids performing acts of contortion while bunched together in the center of a room while weird music played in the background. I think the show was called American Bandstand.
Back to special effects – Nowadays, even though you know they are using computer animation, it’s so good and seamless that it’s rather easy to forget about it, and with the films since the 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeve, “you’ll believe a man can fly”.
The latest super-hero opus, Green Hornet, is poised to open big this weekend. The Green Hornet is not a super-hero per se, because he doesn’t have any super-powers, so he’s more of a masked vigilante. He got his start as a 1930’s radio series, co-created by Frank Striker, the creator of the Lone Ranger and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. In the 1960’s, cashing in on the success of the campy Batman TV series, Green Hornet was turned into a weekly half-hour show staring Van Williams as the title character and Bruce Lee as his sidekick and chauffeur, Kato. The show didn’t last very long, only one season, 26 episodes. Williams later left acting and became a reserve officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, and unless you have been living on Mars for the last half-century, you know what became of Bruce Lee.
According to fellow actor Robert Ito, Lee hated the role of Kato because he “thought it was so subservient”. Nonetheless, it opened many a door for him.
Today, Bruce Lee is real life hero to many. Even Mao Zedong said so. According to a recent article in the Daily China in 1974 “While watching Fist of Fury for the first time, Mao dissolved in tears” and called out “Bruce Lee is a hero!”
Whether or not Lee saw himself in that light, I don’t know. I think he was humble enough that he might have been somewhat embarrassed by the designation, but on the other hand, no doubt he recognized the need for more ethic role-models and probably would not have discouraged it.
Our fascination with super-heroes is an example of how our sense of what constitutes a hero is often out of balance. We expect heroes to be larger than life. In the past, those hailed as heroes usually fit a particular ethnic model. For instance in the first forty or so years after WWII, many people knew about soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the war, but few knew anything of the 442nd, the Japanese-American unit that became the most highly decorated regiment in the entire history of the United States. Thank goodness, we bestow the mantle of hero more equally now.
Christopher Reeve, who in real life faced one of the most daunting challenges imaginable, once said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
A hero is someone who displays courage. And there are many ways to do that. We don’t just find heroes in the midst of extraordinary events, in fact, the real heroes of this world are quite ordinary and they display their courage in everyday situations. Raising a family, getting along with co-workers, spouses, schoolmates. Fighting cancer. Donating time and energy to causes. Touching the lives of others.
In Tibet, the word “bodhisattva” is translated as jangchub sempa or “enlightening mind-hero.” Korean Zen teacher, Mu Soeng, calls this “an articulation of the bodhisattva as a new type of spiritual hero.” Bodhi means “wake” but while sattva can mean “sentient being” Donald S. Lopez has pointed out that it can also mean “mind” and “intention.” Commenting on the Tibetan “mind-hero”, he says, “This suggests that they were cognizant of both the second and third meanings of sattva mentioned above and felt that both should be incorporated into the Tibetan translation with the resulting meaning being, “one who is heroic in his or her intention to achieve enlightenment.”
To achieve enlightenment may sound like a lofty goal, but I am someone who feels that enlightenment consists of little more than living a life of compassion, ethics and wisdom. Perfect, supreme enlightenment is for super heroes. It’s the seemingly mundane accomplishments of everyday mind-heroes that really count for something. For a person struggling with depression, just getting up to face another day might be a great act of courage on his or her part. For someone with cancer, it might be just making it through another chemo session. For someone else it might be not taking a drink, or being honest with another, or showing tenderness . . .
When someone acts as Daniel Hernandez did, to extend help to another without pause, without thinking about it, no matter how small that altruistic act may be, then perhaps we do ascend to super-hero status. We can be – we are – the Supermen and Green Hornets of daily life. It doesn’t really even take courage, for had Hernandez or anyone else stopped to think about it, they might not have leaped into the fray. What it takes is simply holding others in your mind, seeing their welfare as being equal to yours, and knowing that we are dependent upon each other and that the happiness of others is the same as happiness for yourself. Then you can’t help but respond. You don’t stop to think about it.
A hero doesn’t have to fly in the air, bend steel in his or her bare hands. Heroes definitely do not have to kick anybody’s ass, unless it’s their own, for true heroes of the mind know that ultimately the battle we are fighting is with ourselves. Nor do we need to wear masks or capes . . . but we do need to wear the uniform of compassion and display the power of wisdom.
Green Hornet: Think about this, Kato. We’ve been completely wasting our potential. This city needs our help. We could be heroes!
David Bowie: We could be heroes just for one day.