by Anita DiGregory
What is a hero? The Webster Dictionary defines a hero as someone “of distinguished valor or enterprise in danger or fortitude in suffering; a prominent or central personage in any remarkable action or event; hence, a great or illustrious person.”
A hero is someone who sacrifices, and often suffers, for the welfare and well-being of another, often without any desire for repayment. With acts of altruism, courage, honor, and kindness, heroes inspire those around them.
So who are your heroes? Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Paul Rusesabagina, Mother Teresa, Harriet Tubman? Or maybe your parents, a teacher, a pastor, or a friend?
Our area is rich in its history of heroes. Mother Seton, a widow and mother to five, moved to Emmitsburg in 1809. Even after suffering the death of her husband, bankruptcy, and heart-wrenching public shunning due to her conversion, Mother Seton sojourned on. She founded the first American community for religious women, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, and she started the first Catholic girls school in the nation. Through harsh winters, the death of children, and continual hardships, she continued in faith and in service to others. In 1975, she became the first American-born saint.
Another hero with local ties is Stanley Rother. Rother attended and graduated from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. At his request, Father Rother was assigned to a parish in Guatemala. He studied Spanish and Tz’utujil (the indigenous language of the area) to better serve his community. He ministered to the people for 13 years. As violence surged there, faith-filled individuals within the community were tortured and murdered. Rother knew his life was in danger. He wrote, “This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.” On July 28, 1981, Father Rother was murdered, one of ten priests slayed there that year.
These are just some of the hero stories we know; think of all those we don’t know. I think of those moms sacrificing 24/7 for their children, those dads who rise to that alarm clock each morning to head to a job that may not be what they had always envisioned (but it pays the bills or provides the insurance for their family), and those single parents who struggle to be all things for their children.
I asked my eight-year-old what a hero was to him. He replied, “Some person who helps a person a lot…like police officers, men and women in the military, firefighters, people working in a hospital. There are comic book heroes like Superman, Iron Man, and Hulk. And, our parents can be our heroes and so can members of our families…like siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins…and friends. Many people who wrote schoolbooks are heroes ‘cause they are helping us learn. But, the most important hero of all is God because He made everything and everyone.”
The truth is heroes are different for all of us because the qualities that define heroism are as diverse as we are. The importance of heroes, however, is unquestionable, especially for our children. This importance comes not just in the physical act of heroism, but also in the role that heroes play in society and especially in the formation of our youth.
According to University of Richmond Professor of Psychology and author of Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them, Scott Allison, Ph.D., “Heroes elevate us emotionally; they heal our psychological ills; they build connections between people; they encourage us to transform ourselves for the better; and they call us to become heroes and help others.”
Heroism is not to be confused with celebrity. In today’s world, with cheating sports team scandals, political leaders’ hostile public declarations, and singers and actors proselytizing their opinions or their hedonistic beliefs, celebrity is often the opposite of heroism, and instead is harmful to children.
Perhaps this is why now more than ever, it is so important to surround our children with true stories of heroism, to cultivate their souls with truth, goodness, and beauty.
Laura Berquist, author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and founder of Mother of Divine Grace School, states, “As a parent and teacher, the time spent with your child is valuable. If he does not learn to read in kindergarten or first grade, it won’t finally make much difference in his life. But you should spend time reading to him during these formative years. The saint stories, the tales of noble actions performed by noble people, and the fairy tales, with their clear divisions between good and bad, will make a lifelong difference.” Berquist adds, “…stories often move the heart toward the good in a way the direct teaching of the truth, especially initially, and especially in the young, does not. Since these truths are encountered in a concrete, incarnational format that engages both mind and heart, there is less inclination to reject the teaching. The reader is participating in the journey and learning with the characters, so he’s learning the lessons that life teaches.”
William Bennett, author of the bestseller, The Children’s Book of Virtues, writes, “[Heroes] come from every walk of life…They win our admiration by committing the sort of acts every one of us might be called upon to perform—by offering some unseen gesture of compassion, by taking a quiet stand for what is right, by managing to hang on just one minute longer, or perhaps by persevering through a lifetime of struggle and toil…believing in the heroic can help make each and every one of us a little bit better…If our children are to reach for the best, they need to have a picture of the best.”
So, let’s challenge ourselves to read stories of true heroism to our children. Let’s give them the knowledge and tools to become tomorrow’s heroes.