Playing the Hero

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The stands were full; row upon row of cheering fans. The close-cropped field, deep-green with fresh white lines, was bathed in a cascade of light cast from the spires hidden in the shadows of the stadium. The teams stood along the sidelines, opposing one another in bright uniforms now stained with grass and dirt, as the evening’s tension built to a crescendo in the climactic final moments of this contest. Titans wrestling to the end.

This was it: the final game in its final moments, filled with the dramatic promise of victory and defeat. There would be only one winner. In what could only be a scripted moment, it all came down to one play in the waning seconds for this season on the brink. Months, no, years of preparation had brought these athletes together here, tonight. Seventy yards from the end zone and one point behind, the final five seconds moved painfully slowly for the leader and like lightning for the side now with possession.

The snap cracked like thunder and the young warriors sprang into action. All eyes turned toward one receiver racing down the field, this was it! Double-teamed, the receiver realized the defenders anticipated this play, as did the entire stadium. Time ran out as he made a razor cut left, one zig, and then exploded downfield. The ball was waiting for him, just beyond the defender’s reach, as he stretched his hands out to grab it out of the air. The ball was his and those final strides were too much for the safeties who followed him into the end zone. Touchdown! Game over.

Oh, the adulation! The celebration! Cheer leaders, parents, coaches, teammates, and fans all rushed the field. That young receiver was literally carried off in a parade of adoration amid the ecstasy of victory. Looking around, he realized that he was the hero and this moment was his. Glory and honor belonged to him, at least for the moment. The roar and chaos of the win filled his ears, his mind, and his heart, burning the images into memory.

Looking up from his walk of fame, the young receiver and I locked eyes as he finally noticed me watching him. Returning to the firm ground of his front yard, the boy of 9 was nonplussed about being seen in his moment. He smiled coyly at me and then ran back around to his imaginary line of scrimmage, setting up for that next moment of glory. Still smiling from the amazing catch he had just made from his own toss, he reveled in his own imagination and the absolute freedom it brought.

Walking past, I smiled and recalled similar glories. That time when I won the baseball game by making the catch at the 400′ wall or when I hit the winning 3-point shot for the basketball championship or when I, like this young boy, made the impossible catch and ran into the end zone. Funny how I had forgotten those glorious moments when anything was possible. The time when I could be the hero of my own dreams.

Do you remember when anything was possible and all you had to do was imagine it to make it real? Seeing it in your own mind, you could spend hours pretending to be whoever you wanted doing whatever you dreamed. The world was one big opportunity after another. You chased it all, never once feeling self-conscious or embarrassed about living in the imaginary moment, no matter how much your mom or dad didn’t get it.

Watching that boy in his imaginary world, I noticed something very powerful: the entire process was play and fun for him but it was also practice. He was tossing, catching, running, jumping, and anticipating. He was preparing for it. Think about it, he imagined the moment and lived it out in his play, all the while preparing for a day when that moment might come. All the while, he was gloriously joyful in the exertion, imagination, and repetition.

Where are the big dreams? Walking into adulthood, we traded that expansive imagination for something. We we went from ecstatic glory to scripted routines, almond milk lattes, carpool, and the fantasy-killing monotony of someone else’s rules. When did we stop playing the hero in our own lives?

I know, I know. That is an overly harsh check on our realities. Growing up is a good thing, right? As adults, we have the chance to pursue new levels of sophistication in relationships, complexities in jobs, and self-actualization in our pursuits. As parents and working professionals, new joys are discovered in the routines and our aspirations evolve in those contexts. The evolution is necessary and the results can be very good.

But can you remember when anything was possible? That time when you built castles in the sky, won the big game, cured cancer, flew on a spaceship, battled magical dragons, married prince charming, ran a company, painted a masterpiece, wrote a famous novel, starred in a movie, became the first of something meaningful, or pursued whatever other fantasy occupied your childhood. There was a time when you always played the hero.

I see signs around saying “Heroes work here,” or “Not all heroes wear capes.” These are good sentiments for the challenges of our current moment. They capture the essence of sacrifice and risk for health care workers, reminding us of the challenge of their situations and our need to recognize it and be grateful. I wonder if those individuals feel like heroes or see themselves as heroes. Probably not. They are showing up and doing their jobs. Sometimes, that’s what a hero is, someone who shows up and does what needs to be done.

Moving on from childhood, we realize that life can’t always be about heroic moments of the sort described above. We may even begin to associate ourselves with other forms of heroism: showing up and doing what needs to be done, being the hero in the life of another, demonstrating heroic endurance, or living with heroic patience. Looking around, we see many opportunities for heroism. In that sense, we are all called to be heroes and daily efforts toward heroic virtue should be our aim.

Still, I think back to that boy and seeing the joy on his face. He was truly alive in that moment. One might even argue that the ecstasy of winning the game in his mind wasn’t even the most joyful part. One might suggest that the real joy came from imagining the possibility of it and pursuing it.

Maybe we should pause and reconsider what it means to aspire, and live, heroically. By all means, be nice, do your best, show up, and work to make a difference. As human beings, we are called to this every day. Good, go make it happen. But also look toward the heavens.

Remember that heroes don’t just do the difficult, they accomplish the impossible. Recall that heroes break like the rest of us, but they persist while aiming for something more. Don’t forget that heroes aren’t fearless, but they muster courage when the situation is hopeless. They dare to believe when all else say no. Heroes look to the skies of their imagination and see something unseen, then they make it happen.

Consider that we all have a hero within but most of us will settle for something far short. In our maturing, we’ve grown in so many ways and accrued many powerful abilities. But along the way, we’ve lost some of our greatest gifts; childlike attributes that open us to the impossible, unseen, or imaginary. Today, think about what “playing the hero” might look like in your own life. It’s never too late.

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