Friday, September 23, 2011
The idea of heroes is one that has fallen into disrepute over the years. Today its almost impossible, with cellphones and the digital age, to remain above it all, removed from humanity, from your own humanity. There are cameras and a thousand television stations and the interweb and a million, ten million, one hundred million people around the world ready to tear you apart, whether you do wrong or not. Its not as if the world was ever black and white, it never was, but a century, two centuries, three centuries ago, there were mountains to be climbed and oceans to be sailed and lands to be discovered and nations to be founded. The men who raced to the Pole and discovered new worlds and threw off the yoke of tyrants were men and so they were flawed but their accomplishments were so grand or so courageous that they could not be ignored. And they didn't have some guy with a laptop and a website slinging mud at them or some teenager with a cellphone taking pictures of them out on a bender in the Latin Quarter. ;)
There are no new worlds to be discovered, no new oceans to traverse, hell we've even been to the moon and so today's heroes have accomplishments far less impressive than in the days of yore. In the ancient myths and legends of Ireland and Greece and Norway the world teems with monsters and gods and the men, the heroes, are larger than life themselves. If you have been to Newgrange in Ireland you could see why they would have thought as much. This enormous structure was built five thousand years ago with gigantic stones quarried from a hundred miles away, the best that they can tell is that they were brought to the hill north of Dublin up the ancient rivers in leather boats. The mind boggles.
So too these days the men who came before us are larger than the men of today and so our heroes, well who are our heroes? Our politics are too fractured, the churches too discredited, the population too cynical about our leaders for anyone to rise above it all and so our heroes are men (and women) who play children's games.
Its a dangerous game. These are men and women like us and, in the case of professionals, they live entitled lives from the moment that their talent to hit a ball or skate like the wind is recognized. In the old days the flaws of men like Mickey Mantle and Bobby Hull were hidden or unknown. Today men like Michael Vick and Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlesberger, to name just a few, have been found wanting and while we would love to think that our heroes are great guys the reality is that some of these men are stupid and some are cruel and very many of them are simply unlikeable.
But the idea remains, even amongst the most cynical of us, that these guys are like us, like the gang of guys we play Friday night hockey with, like Ray and Cam and Higgs and Dave, terrific guys, a band of brothers, pals who we could go out for pints with after the game. Witness Ryan Smyth's return and the gushing emotions that accompanied it. This mulleted, skinny, goofy looking guy is a hero. Why? Because he is dogged. Because he is not gifted with a powerful shot or slick stickhandling but has been a great pro due to hard work and smarts and determination. Because even though he is a millionaire he seems like the guy next door. Because he's involved in the community and throws pucks to the kids at rinkside. Because he is courageous, even though that word is overused in sports, he is courageous.
And so he is a hero.
When it comes to heroes you tread on shaky ground and it gets shakier when the idea of a hero and the nation comes into play. Canada has its share of great men and women and in many ways they reflect our history and our nation. There are the rogues like John A MacDonald, certainly corrupt, who built the nation. There are the famous men who discovered the country and explored it. There are the soldiers and pilots and sailors who fought and often died for our country. There are those who stood up for the rights of others. And there are men and women who represented this country in sports. Many of their stories are part of the Canadian story, the true Canadian story, and many are part of whatever national myth we may have.
Its tenuous ground. Heroes can be used by others to get us to do what we otherwise would not do and often the reality and the myth collide. I'm not talking about the fact that, for example, John A was a bit of a madman (we tend to give short shrift to our politicians anyhow) or that some of our sporting heroes probably aren't the types that we want our kids looking to. I'm talking about trying to make the link between a man and woman and a nation.
It can be done. The men and women we honour every November 11th are honoured for their courage and their sacrifice and this resonates with us because they were us, they were the Canadian collective and from Fernie to Sudbury to Truro to Charlottetown and all points in between and beyond, the stone pillars and granite monuments and plaques on old wooden churches on red dusty roads list the names of the young men who went over there and never came back. They were the sons and brothers and fathers of those times. They were us then.
And less celebrated but again very much us, those people who came here (and come here) from far away places and built this country. We have talked about them in the past, imagining the hardships, the cold, the loneliness, the isolation of what must have been, at times at least, a tough existence. And again these people represent us, many of the commenters here chimed in with their stories, the immigrant as hero, an unpopular thought in these times (and others) with many but truth. Ordinary men and women who came here for a better life and achieved it through plain old hard work and perseverance.
So then it is fitting that the greatest Canadian hero of all is an ordinary young man. I would love to say that Terry Fox reflects something about Canada that is unique but there is that tenuous ground again. Terry was quintessentially Canadian, there is no arguing that. He was a hockey fan, drank beer with his high school buddies, grew up playing road hockey and ball. We were watching Into The Wind the other night (really you must see it if you haven't) and he's talking away, tousled hair and sunburned face and bluest eyes and I turn to my wife and said that he was just a hoser through and through and I mean that in the most wonderful kind way imaginable. He was one of us. And he chose to run across our country, his actual being devoted to crossing the vast land. A Canadian boy running across Canada.
Terry Fox was a hero alright but as much as I'd like to say he reflected us, well honestly that would be giving us too much credit. He reflected the best of us, the us that settled here and built a nation and fought and died for this country, he was tough and stubborn and brave and, most impressively, he was an ordinary man. He had a temper and could be childish and sometimes that stubborness got in the way of where he was going.
But that of course is the beauty of Terry Fox. An ordinary boy stricken by an ordinary disease that every Canadian has been touched by. What he did was astounding, beyond comprehension really. Running a marathon every day would be impossible if you were healthy. Doing the same on one leg, with your body slowly turning on you as you ran through Newfoundland spruce and along the brilliant coast of Nova Scotia, past red fields of the Island and along the beautiful St John River and then the fields of Quebec and southern Ontario and finally into the Shield, granite and pine, a thousand cold lakes in the endless forest, until finally at the head of magnificent Superior the pain got to be too much and his journey ended.
An ordinary young man who did the most extraordinary thing in this country. The greatest Canadian really and I only wish I could be a better writer when I talk about him.
Posted by Black Dog at 2:40 PM