I’ve had lots of heroes—lots of people I’ve wanted to be like. To this day, I can still feel the excitement in 1944 as I opened the first installment of my Charles Atlas exercise course. I had saved my money ($19.00) and had sent away for those lessons that I thought would help me look like Atlas himself holding up the world. In 1944, I was a chubby and weak sixteen-year-old, and Charles Atlas was trim and strong. I did the exercises every morning—some of them even had me hanging on a bar at a doorjamb. Many months and many lessons later, I still didn’t look like Charles Atlas. Now, happily, I don’t need to. Maybe it’s natural, especially when we’re little and feel weak, to choose “outside” kinds of heroes and superheroes who can keep us safe in a scary world. My next hero was a “big man on campus” in our high school: Jim Stumbaugh. He could do anything. A letterman in basketball, football, and track, he made all A’s. Both of his parents were teachers, but his dad died during our freshman year. Who knows? Maybe that made Jim sensitive to the needs of a shy kid like me. At any rate, we beat the odds and became lifelong friends. Many years after high school when Jim’s teenage son was killed in an automobile accident, I was there for him. The way he lived through that terrible time and the way he lived through his own years of cancer confirmed my pick of a hero. Jim started out looking like Charles Atlas, ended up looking like Mahatma Gandhi. What’s amazing to me is that he always acted like that peace-filled Gandhi. Yes, Gandhi’s one of my heroes… Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer and Jane Addams (that tireless advocate of internationalism and world peace), and Bo Lozoff (who helps inmates use their time well in prison). Other heroes are Yo-Yo Ma and everyone else in the public eye who cares about beauty and refuses to bow to fast and loud sensationalism and greed. Recently I’ve added an “unknown hero” to my list: the person who drives the car I saw the other day, the parked car with the flashing lights and the sign that reads, “Vintage Volunteer… Home Delivered Meals.” So those are some of my heroes now: the Charles Atlases of my elder years! They’re the kind of people who help all of us come to realize that “biggest” doesn’t necessarily mean “best,” that the most important things of life are inside things like feelings and wonder and love—and that the ultimate happiness is being able sometimes, somehow to help our neighbor become a hero too.
Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers), quoted in The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, pp. 138-141
“When people believe in a tale that conflicts with self-checkable evidence it tells me that people undervalue the role of evidence on formulating an internal belief system. Why this is so is not clear - but it enables many people to hold fast to ideas and notions based purely on supposition.”—Neil deGrasse Tyson (via whats-out-there)