By Bradford F. Spencer, Ph.D. (Fall 1992)
I’m in a quandary. What is it that makes one a “hero?” Is it only through unfortunate circumstances? I find myself bothered by these questions on a plane flying back from an impromptu reunion marking the 27th anniversary of my high school graduating class. The reason for this quickly planned gathering was the release of Terry Anderson, the last US hostage held in a Lebanon prison cell, who was a classmate.
As it turned out, the world watched with interest as he came home after those many years to visit his roots in Batavia, New York. He was given a hero’s welcome, including our Saturday afternoon class reunion picnic. As I sat through the numerous awards for bravery and heroism given by many civic organizations, the United States Marine Corp (who brought the Marine Band), the key to the city, proclamations from the president, and others, I wondered what he had really done to deserve the designation “hero.”
When reporters asked me, did I have any Terry Anderson stories, I was initially a bit set back because I did not. Yes, I knew Terry. No, I did not know him well. I didn’t know many of my other 360 classmates well. He had awkwardly walked into our large group, all of whom knew him by sight, and I suspect that he remembered only a few of us despite his gracious greetings.
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Yet, emerging after 7 years of captivity, came a man of deep conviction, a boy in spirit, with an articulate nature, and good health, having endured torture, solitary confinement, and an uncertain future. After being kidnapped on the streets of Beirut and held prisoner for years, he emerged as an individual with great personal fortitude, conviction, and a driving sense of both the greater good from his experiences and forgiveness for his captors.
I wonder, if like so many of his fellow captives, I would have given up long before freedom came. He traded seven years of his life for what he now describes as a life that has given him back the years multi fold. He has obviously learned something about himself and his existence that goes beyond the daily physical goals and monetary aspirations that we often start to believe are all important period
As I sit in the plane approaching Los Angeles, some answers become clearer. Heroes are not people who go out and seek to become great. They are just people who do the best they can as they rise to the occasion despite the situation or circumstances. It is simple character. A personal strength that shows in the face of adversity makes one a hero.
Most of our heroes are not recognized in the newspapers or the media, unlike Terry Anderson. I see them frequently in business and personal life as they meet adversity with inner strength and determination. They seem to become stronger as they emerge from their trials and they help each of us appreciate our own freedoms, talents, and small accomplishments.
Is Terry Anderson a hero because he was pulled from the streets to be released seven years later? For me, that does not qualify. What created this hero that I admire? In Terry, I saw a love for life and learning combined with the stubbornness which would not let any situation where him down. These are the qualities of heroism.