Unexpected Heroes

People have always created or looked for heroes to give us inspiration, support or even hope. Think about when we were growing up, who were our fictional heroes? Superman, Nancy Drew, Popeye, and even The Tortoise in Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare (maybe the Bugs Bunny version!). We learned early to identify characters that set an example for us to follow. Some things don’t change. We still are looking for heroes – especially when so many of the more likely candidates disappoint us.

So, let’s name a few ‘unexpected heroes’ of recent times: Susan Boyle (British Idol, YouTube phenomenon, middle-class, 48 year old, Scottish, church volunteer), Roger Robinson (the actor that won his first Tony award on Sunday night for “Joe Turners’ Come and Gone” after 46 years of struggling in off-Broadway plays), Calvin Borel (the common, tiny man who dropped out of school at age 8 to work with this family in southern Louisiana, and went on to be one of the world’s greatest jockeys almost winning a “triple crown” for his horse races this year).

These are just a few of the ‘now public’ unexpected heroes. Where were ANY of them in the vast public consciousness less than even 2-3 months ago? What is it about these beacons of light which make us follow them with such eagerness? Is it hope? Is it inspiration? Is it the unlikely nature of their success or do we naturally root for the underdog? Are we searching for any ordinary person that gives us a sense of extraordinary potential? Perhaps, the answer is ‘yes’ to all those questions.

My question for you to consider is this: what about the heroes in our own backyards? Why is the media the primary source for those heroic figures? What about the ones that go virtually unnoticed by the public at large? You know who I am talking out:

  • the neighbor that does the heavy lifting to keep up the neighborhood when no one else seems to have the time;
  • the private sector manager that leaves a big corporate job to do a less-paying, less-visible, non-profit job because they are called to make a difference;
  • the nurse in the burn unit that holds the hand of those enduring painful treatments incomprehensible to most of us, or even…
  • the women who sees a line of military personnel walking through the airport and starts an impromptu standing ovation which lasts over 15 minutes and inspires the entire terminal of people to join in the applause as the soldiers return home to America.

As we grow older, life gets tougher. That is a fact. A parent or a friend’s parent gets sick, our child hits a road bump in life, recessionary realities compromise planned retirement, a friend gets an unexpected diagnosis….or in my case, a childhood friend can’t face another day – and decides to end their life. Life is tough. We are the adults, now. We seek heroes in these day to day challenges. Those that ‘rise up, rise above the occasion, take the high road’ – or my favorite: “Rise up on their hind legs” (this is the phrase my mom saved for those occasions when a person needs to stand up for themselves or for a cause for which they are passionate – in a ‘lion’ sort of way). Personally, I am inspired by those heroes that ‘rise up’ and do so in a way that is strong and convicted.

What can we learn from these heroic examples?

They Focus.

Heroes live with unrelenting focus on what they want and what they really want to do. They FOCUS on this – the rest is just noise. I recently had the opportunity to attend a luncheon for  Wednesday’s Child Benefit Corporation WCBC). This non-profit agency focuses on supporting foster children by providing foster children with “things” the government or foster care system cannot (i.e., braces, tutors, summer camp, glasses, etc.). At this luncheon we heard the remarkable Antwone Fischer, who was made famous due to the movie named after him starring Denzel Washington. Though Antwone’s biographical speech was incredibly inspirational, it was actually another speech from a product of the foster care system that truly moved me to the core.

Her name was Mickey Rayford. Mickey Rayford entered the foster care system when she was only 18 months old. She had been passed around to various foster homes for years which affected her education, not to mention her self esteem. In her junior year of high school, she failed Geometry and needed to take it in the summer in order to graduate with her class the following year. Mickey could not afford the summer class and the state does not provide for such things. Mickey was facing not being able to graduate with her class. She felt very defeated. Wednesday’s Child Benefit Corporation (WCBC) was able to pay for her to take the class in the summer. She passed that class and went on to graduate with her friends the following year. Having that one small act of kindness by WCBC changed her perspective: she went from feeling inadequate and defeated to feeling as if she had options! In May 2009, Mickey graduated from Texas Women’s University with a degree in Government. She ruthlessly focused on this dream against all odds and unimaginable hardship. She quoted her hero, Thurgood Marshall, “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.” She went onto say – others, like Wednesday’s Child, helped her pick up her boots – and stay focused on her dream. What a story.

They Work Hard.

They work hard and use their talents to the best of their ability, regardless of the hardships surrounding the situation. For example, do you think Calvin Borel, as a child, controlled his sparse upbringing or his lack of formal education? He has said in numerous interviews that ‘he and his brother were short on education, yet long on work.’ They worked very hard with what they were given. He and his brother, Cecil, were poor country boys. They literally worked day and night, mucking stalls and working horses. During a race one night at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La., Calvin’s mount, Miss Touchdown, clipped heels with another horse and flew into a light post. The horse was fine, but Calvin had broken ribs, a punctured lung and had to have his spleen removed. He was in a coma. When Calvin was healthy enough to come back, Cecil, his brother, put him back on Miss Touchdown for his first race. The filly won. Calvin (and his brother) played the hand they were dealt.

The reality is this: Calvin didn’t control his environment or his background. He did control how he responded. Several months ago, I wrote a blog about the three things we can control: our “ABC’s” – our attitude, our behavior and our choices. That really is all we can control. We don’t control anyone else’s, only our own. Calvin made the choice to persevere despite enormous obstacles. He ‘rose up’ and achieved unexpected success.

They stay committed and firm.

I am currently co-chairing a charity event that is up against naysayers on a daily basis. Raising funds in this climate is tough. As most know, the charitable giving for most non-profits is down over 40%. Frankly, we are all getting tired. However, what I know for sure is this: if we stop or even slow down, we don’t stand a chance of reaching our goal. If we keep pushing and working hard – we do. It is as simple as that. We are a product of our focused, committed efforts. Only we will create our ‘end game.’

Real heroes don’t give up.

What I also have observed, is that diligence is contagious. Haven’t you ever noticed when someone falls down – physically or figuratively – and when they pick themselves up, how others immediately start to pull for them? Those examples are numerous! Think of your favorite sports team, the ‘Dancing with the Stars’ contestant you were following, the Olympic athlete who struggled in the preliminaries … we love to root for those that don’t give up and succeed even with obstacles.

So what is the ‘net’ take away?

I can sum it up with two parting thoughts: Keep going whatever it takes (we don’t know who may be looking at us as ‘their’ hero). Focus, work hard, and keep the faith. AND, I will also add, find others that believe in you. Find those that will always believe you can do whatever you want to do and keep them close. This support system is critical.

Many of the heroes in my life are not those that do ‘everything right’ by societal standards or norms. Nor have they excessively succeeded by the world’s monetary or positional metrics or standards. Many of my heroes are truly unexpected. They are those that teach me through their failures, their losses, and, most importantly, their ‘Phoenix rising’ through their most difficult times. They are the single moms, the cancer survivors, the unemployed, the passed over or the late bloomers. They are the 65 year old first time published writer, the 72 year old graduate of college, the 14 year old cancer patient at the Ronald McDonald house, and the 90 year old widow flying to London for the first time. Neither age nor time makes a difference.

In challenging times, we crave the company of ordinary heroes (as Nancy Gibbs aptly points out in her TIME editorial). The reality is they are among us and we truly don’t have to look that far. We don’t have to wait for the media to crown our next extraordinary person the new ‘idol.’ Look around. Celebrate talent. Recognize and root for strength and perseverance. Appreciate backbone and courage against unlikely odds. Find an unexpected hero in your life today, let them know the influence they are having on your life,  and “pay it forward” by sharing their story to inspire someone else.

This is your charge.