Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Note To Your Hero

I've been a local newspaper columnist for almost sixteen years, and every year at this time, I write a column about heroes. I thought I'd carry that on here.

The premise is this: take out a piece of paper, and write a note of appreciation and send it to one of your heroes. I always think this is the perfect time-- just before the onslaught of the holiday season. It has become a small tradition here, and many of my colleagues use it as an i class writing assignment (so if you want a connection to education, I guess there it is). Here's how I explained it a few years ago:

We all have our heroes—people we admire, people who we think are examples of what’s good about humans. And yet somehow, we never get around to telling them how much we appreciate them.

You know when we finally get around to talking about all the great things we really loved about them? After they pass away. After they could actually get to hear how much they are appreciated.
Why do we wait?

Sometimes we wait because we think we have all the time in the world. We really ought to know better. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for anyone.

Sometimes we refrain from praise because the act we admire seems like a small thing. But you don’t have to save the entire world to make your corner of the planet a better place. Every little bit helps.

Sometimes we hold back because our heroes are not perfect. I don’t mean quirky movie-style minor flaws, like Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes or Patrick Dempsey and his fear of shirts. Real people can come with pretty significant flaws. Our own founding fathers were loaded with them, from Thomas Jefferson and his slaves to John Adams and his mega-jerkiness.

We struggle with the brokenness of human nature. If someone behaves like a hero on Monday and a terrible person on Tuesday, what do we call him on Wednesday? We keep waiting for a perfect person to elevate to hero status, and it never happens.

We could pull lots of lessons from that, but here’s the one I prefer to focus on: everything great ever done was done by somebody with flaws, but it was still great.

We can wait for our heroes to be perfect, or we can wait until they’re dead and their flaws suddenly don’t seem so awful. Or we could honor their best stuff while we still have the chance.

If you want to strengthen your world and make it even a marginally better place, you give your strength and support to the things you want to see more of. Honoring someone for the good they do is not the same thing as applauding their mistakes and messes. If anything, it can lend a compass to people who might be having trouble finding their way. When they are standing puzzled at a crossroads, it’s a way to say, “This. This is what is best in you. This is what you should trust about yourself.”

So once a year, I give you homework. Here it is.

Write a letter to one of your heroes. It doesn’t have to be complicated (even if your feelings are). It doesn’t have to be long. It can follow this simple formula:

Dear [insert name here], You are my hero because

Fill in the blank with just a sentence or two. Do not add a “but” or an “even though” or some account of a time they let you down to “balance” things. You can work that out some other day, if you must. Your assignment here is to focus only that quality that you admire.

It has to be a letter. You can’'t just send an email or make a phone call. A letter is something your hero will be able to get out and read, more than once, over the days or weeks or years ahead. Letters have permanence. My elementary phys ed teacher Lou Slautterback still has a thank you note from my folks. Write a letter.

It may feel awkward or odd to write something so directly positive. Trust me. You’ll feel better once you’ve done it. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was given to a woman who was having trouble figuring out how to handle a difficult relationship in her life. “Imagine that the person has died,” the advice-giver said. “Think about what you would regret not having done or said. Now go do that.”

We all have heroes, and we all too rarely tell them why they are heroes to us, why they are valuable and important people in our lives. They deserve to know why they matter, how they inspire you, what they do to make the world a better place, even if their heroics happen in small ways. You have your assignment. Write a letter.

1 comment:

  1. Peter Greene, you are my hero! As an education writer, you are wise, astonishingly prolific, and consistently funny. You have a humorist's way with metaphor and analogy, combined with the analytical abilities of a good old-fashioned policy wonk. And you teach students, too! The field of education is lucky to have you. Thanks for all you do!