A few years back, before Noah and Luke were born, I worked for a non-profit called The RARE Foundation. Its goal was to inspire young people to see the presence of Everyday Heroes in their lives. The founder of RARE was an attorney, Gil Cox Jr. He decided to start the foundation when he saw that athletes and celebrities, usually glorified by the media and in turn idolized by young, impressionable minds, were often the ones making such poor life choices. He thought, “We need to show young people that there are real heroes to look up to who have stronger ethics and moral fiber. They may not have a Grammy or a Super Bowl ring, but they are the people making a positive difference in the world.”
So Mr. Cox and other sponsors funded a project partnering with Detroit Newspapers in Education in which elementary students participated in a writing program that encouraged them to recognize and celebrate the everyday heroes in their own lives. I had the honor of joining RARE about ten years into its efforts and the joy of implementing a new program; a scholarship contest for Michigan High school graduates. In the first year of the scholarship program, I received over 300 essays from students all across the state. Each student was hoping to win a $1,500 scholarship to a Michigan college, university or a post-secondary education institution. I had the unfortunate luck of only being able to award four of them. It was such a challenge, especially when I read the soul-baring stories of many of those kids. I loved reading those essays more than anything I’d ever done at a job before.
When those crumpled, ambiguous orange/tan/yellow manila envelopes crossed my desk, my heart swelled. As I read each essay, a voice would come to life telling a story about his or her life and the “average” human being whom they looked up to. Of course none of these people were average. Among some of the most touching stories were those of cancer survivors, victims of domestic abuse, entrepreneurs who started their own organizations to help people in need, missionaries, and reformed drug addicts who help others suffering with addiction. I often sobbed as I read the stories of these souls who had overcome amazing adversity and found incredible purpose within their lives. And while my hope in humanity was revived through these stories, the ones that often touched my heart most were the stories I read about young people admiring their mothers and fathers.
I would giggle at the opening line of nearly every essay, “Many people think a hero is someone who flies or wears a cape…” But as I read on, four out of five essays were students saying that their parents inspired them more than any other individual in their lives.
WHEN WILL WE GET IT? These kids look up to us! Everything we say, everything we do. We are shaping their perception of the world. Jim Henson once said, “The attitude that you have as a parent is what your kids will learn from, more than what you tell them.” Our attitude affects them: How do we make our children feel? Do they feel loved and accepted for who they are? It applies to our significant others: Do we choose our words toward our partner as words of respect and love or do we degrade and criticize? How do we talk about the people in our lives? Do we gossip and spread rumors, or do we refrain from judgement realizing that we are not in the shoes of others and do not know how they feel? THESE are the things our children will observe and adopt as their methods for facing the world.
Last week, I was horror stricken at the images of innocent children washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean. Syrian refugees, desperate to be free from a country of tyranny and oppression, a place ravaged by fear and war. These people consider themselves already dead but pray somehow their children may live and may make it to freedom. My heart is broken for these people…
Who is responsible for saving the world? I know many times, I catch myself thinking there is nothing I can do to change these tragic events. I have young kids. I can’t fly there and physically be there to help. I have responsibilities here. I mean, I can give money, right? I can collect supplies and send it overseas and that will be a temporary fix. But how do we change the fundamental problems that exist within the government and belief systems that perpetuate these events? How do we prevent these things from continuing to happen?
The answer is quite simple. We need to realize that we are not human beings living a spiritual life, we are spiritual beings living a human life. There is so much untapped potential and greatness within all of us. But we are numb. Many of us go blindly through our days in a series of motions thinking we are nobody of importance, we can’t change the world. But what if we all believed we could instead of thinking that we couldn’t? What if we pass that attitude to our children as well and BELIEVE it. We can make a difference. We will and we MUST.
We need to share the spirit of love with humanity. It’s not “us over here” and “them over there.” We are all pieces of God. We recognize the divinity within the ordinary. Everyone is special and no, that’s not just a way of saying no one is. We all have it in us to be “heroes.” Let’s raise a generation of kids who feel empathy. Let’s teach our kids that compassion and selflessness are the characteristics of substance. If we chase wealth and fame and physical success, they will learn to do the same. Ask any “rich person” how much happiness monetary wealth has bought them. Jim Carrey said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
The way to find purpose in life is to serve others and not to expect anything in return. Believe it or not, there is receiving in giving. I was thinking about all of this today because it’s my mom’s birthday. And like those high school student essays I used to read years ago, my own essay would look very similar. My mom is my hero. She’s not a celebrity (although she is a
wonderfully talented artist and is winning awards left and right). But what I admire about her most is the way she steps up to help anyone in need. She doesn’t ask for any recognition or praise. She lives to serve. And what’s even more incredible is it doesn’t make her boring. It makes her beautiful. She has a light that glows from within. People tell me all the time how beautiful my mom is. Living a life rich in virtue does more for your physical appearance than any plastic surgery. You radiate love and joy. People are inspired just by the presence of those who share their inward light; their divinity.
This is what I hope I can pass along to my children. I want to leave them a world of people who see their greatness and won’t stand for injustice or intolerance. I always see the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I love it, but sometimes it feels vague. After all, what can I really do to change the world?
Well, to start, I can serve others; any act of kindness will do. Whatever is in my power this minute is an opportunity. Everything from holding the door open for someone to flying to impoverished parts of the world and handing out clean water is demonstrating an act of God. What’s our moral compass? How do we know what to do? Every day, we are given choices between love and fear; the way we talk to our children, how we treat our friends, it all reverberates from our thoughts, our words and our deeds. The only thing anyone needs to be a hero is the ability to act with love.