On Heroes

Last night I had the good fortune to attend a Law Society seminar sponsored by the Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (http://claihr.ca/wordpress/). The guest speaker was retired Lt General of the Canadian Forces, Romeo Dallaire. Aside from the fact that Gen. Dallaire was remarkably enlightening speaking about his experiences and insights regarding child soldiers and conflict minerals in Africa, he is also my eldest child’s hero.

Jacob is about to turn 16, in Grade 11, currently a Sgt. in his Army Cadet corps with plans to join the Canadian Forces Reserves on his 16th birthday. If he continues to excel academically he will apply to attend Royal Military College or another university on a military ticket as a prelude to a career as an officer in our world respected military. The seminar where my son met his hero came on the heels of two other recent family events with a similar theme.

Just before the kids returned to school, Tanya and I took the three of them (Jacob and his younger twin siblings Bennie and Leora) to the AGO to view the Ai Wei Wei exhibition. Wei, of course, is the Chinese dissident artist who has endured beatings, incarceration, restricted freedom and mobility even upon release from prison, and is openly watched by the government 24 hours a day. All because he has used his art as a means to speak out against the totalitarian government of his country and the treatment of its citizens.

Also immediately before the kids went back to school we received a letter from the twins Hebrew School recently advising that their Grade 4 project this year will be the research and presentation on a Jewish hero. I have suggested my twins not only find a Jewish hero, but a Canadian Jewish hero. My daughter has settled on Rosalie Abella, the first female Jewish judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, and a woman who during her time as one of the youngest members of the Ontario Court of Appeal, and as a Supreme Court justice, wrote some significant decisions which had the profound effect of shaping our nation’s social values, including the landmark ruling that legalized same sex marriage.

Bennie is undecided as to his Jewish hero but we have been talking about the great humanitarian Stephen Lewis, or possibly Pierre Trudeau. Yes, he knows Trudeau was not Jewish, but Trudeau’s personal convictions, which motivated his politics and culminated in the Charter in 1982, forever ensured a level playing field not only for Jews, but all religious and racial minorities, gays and lesbians, and marginalized political viewpoints unprecedented in Western society.

On the subject of heroes, we discussed in contrast the achievements of the three “heroes” mentioned above with those of the various movie stars who were recently in town for the Toronto International Film Festival. I was absolutely amazed (albeit not surprised) at the coverage our local media gave to sightings of celebs- where they shopped, where they ate, and sadly, even what they had to say about current events, pseudo-events, and non-events. We live in a society where a recent study of Americans (and I have no reason to think the Canadian numbers would be any different) showed that eight of ten people knew who Miley Cyrus was and that she had recently “twerked” on national television, but only 1 of those 10 knew anything about the conflict in Syria. I suppose by this point it is actually trite to say that millions more vote for contestants on American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance than in actual elections. I point these items out simply to emphasize that our cultural obsession with celebrity has bastardized the meaning of the word “hero” as to almost devalue its meaning. Judging by the column inches and television minutes devoted to reality television “stars” and actors in comparison to stories of people of substance, it appears that true heroism is indeed in decline.

Heroes are those who DO something, who live their convictions, who do what they believe is right in the name of making the world a better place, often at great personal risk or cost. Heroes can indeed and probably should be celebrities. Celebrities, generally, cannot be heroes merely by virtue of their celebrated status.

A society needs heroes. Heroes give us hope. They embody the spirit and characteristics that we should all aspire to. They often motivate the rest of us to action that changes the world around us for the better. Some heroes choose a path of heroism, others are thrust into it.

But let us be careful of who we call a hero, or what we determine is a heroic act. Let us not cheapen the concept for our children. Let us as parents show the way by talking to the children about our heroes and their achievements, as well as how those heroes have affected us personally. Let our children enjoy all the celebrity filled media they like, but let us not forget to teach them to distinguish between entertainment and heroism, between celebrity and hero. Educate them about people who have taken the more difficult choice for purely noble reasons, even at the risk of career, personal and relationship sacrifice. These may be the famous heroes we all know or could be a unsung hero who risked life and limb to save lives in a particular situation. In my university days, I knew an elderly gentleman who had risked his life to shepherd many Jews out of Hungary after the revolution. Unknown for this heroism outside of his family and the small Hungarian Jewish community in Toronto, his actions in the face of imprisonment or even execution if he had been caught were indeed heroic. The many Polish Catholics who risked certain death at the hands of the Nazis but who nonetheless hid Jews and aided them in obtaining safe passage were of a similar kind of heroism. Heroism can also be a one-off, such as rescuing someone from drowning in dangerous waters or a burning vehicle. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, races, religions and political creed. Their actions take many different forms and substance. Often, we may not realize them while they are in the midst of their heroism, but only in the fullness of time and retrospect. And we may not always agree with their cause or their actions.

But what they all have in common is a finely tuned moral compass and the placement of others before themselves. Not all of our children will grow up to heroes; in fact, most will not. But if my children develop some of the character traits of real heroes then they will be well equipped to make the world a better place even in their own small way.