By Richard P. Holm, MD
In a world of selfishness, dishonesty, and discrimination, how do our children find their way? Conventional wisdom says that we only learn by example, and just look at what examples abound: selfishness with criminals like Bernie Madoff and other Wall Street scoundrels; dishonesty with blatant false marketing by actors on TV; and discrimination by politicians against people of other religions, other sexual orientation, other cultures, other anything. Indeed, if our children only learned by these kinds of examples, we would be in big trouble. But here is where mental health and choice comes in.
During our lives, especially when young, every one of us must be on a quest for meaning, and experts say that mostly we find our way by choosing examples for living. I learned first from my parents' and then there was the farmer who taught work ethic, the football couch who taught toughness, the debate couch who taught intellectual curiosity, the college classmate who taught kindness, and the med school professor who taught the importance of honest science. It is true that we grow most, not from books, conferences, lectures, or rules, but rather by example from the heroes around us.
The religious expert Joseph Campbell taught us that the “hero’s quest” is a story that comes from every culture as a metaphor to help us in our search for meaning. The classic hero story of Greek mythology begins with an innocent baby, born from one mortal parent crossed with a god, who somehow escapes an evil menace, and as a young adult embarks on some quest to find meaning. This adventure commonly finds the hero selflessly slaying an evil dragon to save an innocent damsel while bringing back truth and justice to the nearby village.
The modern hero story is different from the Greek myth. She or he is a flawed ordinary person, someone with whom each of us can relate, who comes up out of the morass of our modern troubled society to stand for something that gives direction and meaning to our lives.
The modern hero is someone each of us could be. We can try, even in a flawed way, to live a life that is not selfish, but helpful to others; not dishonest, but truthful while considerate; not with cruel discrimination, but respectful of the rights of others who may be different.
There could be a hero within every one of us.