“Every society needs heroes. And every society has them. The reason we don’t often see them is because we don’t bother to look.

There are two kinds of heroes. Heroes who shine in the face of great adversity, who perform an amazing feat in a difficult situation. And heroes who live among us, who do their work unceremoniously, unnoticed by many of us, but who make a difference in the lives of others.

Heroes are selfless people who perform extraordinary acts. The mark of heroes is not necessarily the result of their action, but what they are willing to do for others and for their chosen cause. Even if they fail, their determination lives on for others to follow. The glory lies not in the achievement, but in the sacrifice.”

― Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

What makes a hero? I had that thought while watching Maiden with a younger friend. A decade ago we sat together and watched Whale Rider in the same theater. At the time, she was twelve years old and quite taken with the story of Kahu Paikea Apirana, a twelve-year-old Māori girl whose ambition was to become tribal chief. Maori custom dictated that the title be passed only to male members of the tribe and while her lineage made it her birthright, the honor was denied her. Winning a series of physical challenges the young men of the village failed to complete, combined with her ability to lead beached whales back to the sea changed all that. Some of you will remember the last line of the movie, “My name is Paikea Apirana, and I come from a long line of chiefs stretching all the way back to the Whale Rider. I’m not a prophet, but I know that our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength.” Back in the day, my young friend memorized the lines and they became her battle cry. She had much to overcome but her persistence and determination guaranteed her a better life. She is now a registered nurse and proof positive that with effort the course of life can be changed.

Maiden is another tale of women overcoming near insurmountable odds to achieve a goal no one thought was possible. And over coffee following the movie we talked about how important it is for young women to have inspirational examples to follow. Young and old alike, we need heroes to define the limits of our aspirations. Our heroes help define our ideals – things like courage, honor and justice – and in doing so shape and define us. We pick heroes we would like to emulate. Young women today have exposure to heroic women in all fields of endeavor. Women of my generation had few heroes to emulate. We were raised to marry and have children, so our heroes were limited to Madam Curie, Babe Didrikson, Amelia Earhart, and, if your mother was a democrat, Eleanor Roosevelt. And while not known to the larger community, many of us found women who served as inspirations and taught us how to navigate life’s difficult waters.

I learned many things from the women in my neighborhood. They thoroughly domesticated me, but Anita, the youngest of the crew, taught me the greatest lesson of all – life was not a case of all or nothing at all. She was young, married and was a mathematician working on a project at the University of Chicago. Later, she would be transferred to Argonne National Laboratories just outside the city and that made her even more mysterious. She was different than the other other women I came to love. She was picked up by a bus every morning and while she cooked and cleaned like the others, her life had a dimension the others lacked. As a four and five year old, her credentials weren’t what impressed me. ‘Nita had a Christmas tree that stood in her living room throughout the year. It was put up the year her husband was sent to North Africa and remained there until his homecoming three years later. The tree was by then an ornamented stick, but it stood watch like a sentinel connecting her to him while he was away. As I grew older, her voice was the one that urged reading and math and whispered “you can do it all.” If not my hero, she was my inspiration and I still can hear her voice.

Researchers have found that in a lot of ways heroes are not all that different from most people. Certain of their skills, however, are more fully developed. They are highly empathetic, competent and skilled and they are persistent in the face of obstacles. They have distinguishing abilities and courage and they are generally regarded as models who have performed at a level most of us will never achieve. We live in a society that tries to reduce everything to a common denominator and, as a result, we tend to misuse words. All heroes are inspirational but not all who are inspirational are heroic. People who survive a tragedy are not heroes though some call them that. The heroes are the people who run into the fray to save them – the people who step outside themselves to uplift others.

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