[This one is pretty long, and might seem a little boring or irrelevant to the casual reader. But if you’re curiosity’s piqued, please read on!]
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. For some reason, in fact, in the mornings I sometimes find myself waking up and thinking, practically first thing, “Man, I should really write about hero worship!” Here’s how I think it started:
I recently began interning at a think tank, where I work in close proximity with some pretty prominent people. Among the list of people I would love to meet while there are Newt Gingrich, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Greg Mankiw (whose econ textbook I found so enjoyable that I forewent a pretty generous sell-back price to keep it). The other day, while helping stuff envelopes for an event (a very glamorous task), I encountered some other famous names you’d definitely recognize if you ever watched the news.* Now, it’s pretty easy to get drunk on the thrill of celebrity (or, in my case, mere distant association to celebrity), but for me, at least, the intoxication is relatively short-lived and unfulfilling.** As Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, even US presidents are merely men: “We hire them, we fire them, they come back for photo-ops. They’re not magic.”***
Nevertheless, there seems to be a common yearning for heroes and leaders. There is an apparent demand for people who will show us the way, those we can look up to with admiration and expectation. On such people, we seem to place our hopes – hopes of deliverance from our difficulties, from danger, insecurity, our own weakness and shortcomings, purposelessness, loneliness. I do not think this yearning for leaders is inappropriate – in fact, I think it is a very natural by-product of our experience as mortals separated from our Heavenly Father. However, I think it is important, as Peggy Noonan has suggested, not to place undue expectations on people who are, notwithstanding their great talents and accomplishments as leader and role models, still just people. Furthermore, we ought to be careful not to divest ourselves of personal accountability and place it on the shoulders of these “great people”; their role ought to be to aid and encourage us and not, with one very notable exception, to save us.
That said, I’d like to laud certain people who have made, and continue to make, a huge and positive impact in my life, who have earned my admiration and inspired me to greater heights. This is not an exhaustive list – I’ve been abundantly blessed with countless wonderful people who have left their mark in my life, but these are the ones that stand out most clearly. “They’re not magic,” but by small means they have done great things for me.
1) Dr. Michael Murdock: one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and certainly one of the more strangely charismatic ones. Despite his huge intellect and exacting academic standards, behind the layers Dr. Murdock is generous and, although it may surprise some, quite gentle and kind. He helped me make big improvements in my thinking and writing (still plenty of room for improvement though!), and helped me discover that I really like history after all. Also, he went beyond the call of duty by being a very patient listening ear as I tried to chart my academic course.
2) Dr. Edwin Gantt: he did a great service for me, and continues to do a great service for the students of BYU by teaching psychology from a perspective that takes religion (particularly, but not exclusively, the religion of the Latter-day Saints) seriously. This is an uncommon practice in the social sciences, especially psychology. Along with Dr. Slife, another great professor, he helped me recognize the assumptions and perspectives (certain of which are tragically misleading, if not spiritually dangerous) currently prevalent in the behavioral sciences, and to recognize some alternative views and assumptions which are just as viable. With insight, enthusiasm, and a great sense of humor, Dr. Gantt is helping prepare LDS scholars to enter the professional world without compromising their membership in the kingdom.****
3) Bishop Kerry Morgan: it seems like he was my bishop in Oregon for a long time, but I think that is because he was a true and loving friend to me in- and outside of his tenure as bishop. He is a true Christian who has gone the extra mile for me and countless others.
4) Dr. Valerie Hudson: she, along with Dr. Bowen, another wonderful woman, not only introduced me to the complex, fascinating world of women’s issues but also to political science (I had never taken a Poli Sci course before taking theirs). Thankfully, they did it in a way that was bold and forthright, yet thoughtful, loving, and full of faith. Dr. Hudson is a big hero(ine) in my eyes – not just because she is kicking butt on a regular basis to improve the lives of women and children around the world, but because that is not even close her first priority, but rather secondary to her cherished role as a wife and mother. She has continued to work and teach not because she prefers it to the work of home and family, but unselfishly and for a different reason entirely. One who champions womanhood institutionally and especially in the home earns a place at the top of my list. Which takes me to my next person…
5) My beloved Mom! She is such a delightful, wonderful woman, that merely talking to her on the phone refreshes my spirits and gladdens my heart! Intensely and lovingly committed to her children, it would be impossible for me not to love her in return. She has been a tremendous source of strength and encouragement in my life. My mom is a born leader with an iron will (she’s mellowed out over the years, fortunately) and a heart of gold who finds her greatest joy in serving others. I was truly born of goodly parents – the other of whom is…
6) My Dad! I do not know a wiser, more intelligent man than my dad, nor one who is also as gentle and kind (if that is what fatherhood does to a man, then I want in!). Very often, my dad contributes a voice of incomparable reason to dispel confusion in my life and help me maintain my most important priorities. He’s done his best to shape me into a man (one can only do so much), and has taught me by word and deed to sacrifice for and unselfishly love his family. As a father, he has exemplified righteous priesthood leadership “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy” (see Doctrine & Covenants 121:41-44).
7) Joseph Smith, Jr.: some people have built entire careers out of trying to assassinate this man’s character (and indeed, his message was and is a bold one, which some find threatening), but for me, it is exactly his character that I admire so much. I like to think that he and I share similar dispositions. A study of Joseph Smith’s life reveals him to have been, from an early age, prone to serious and sober reflection on the questions of the soul, yet endowed with a “native cheery temperament”. He possessed a unique blend of intellectual and spiritual depth and purpose and a certain earthy affability; some, expecting the austere demeanor of a Moses from a prophet of God, were unpleasantly surprised to find Joseph quite too approachable and gregarious upon first meeting him. Joseph Smith was no brooding introvert, nor was he merely a charismatic people-person – he was a courageous, self-sacrificing leader and prophet, entrusted with a sacred work and responsibility, but brimming with a love of all people and an eagerness for the company and well-being of all who were friends. I do not wish to stretch the comparison between he and I too far -certainly, I am not Joseph Smith-, but I see facets of myself, undeveloped as I am, in him. That gives me comfort and encouragement when I feel alone, uncertain, or misunderstood, but perhaps more importantly, it gives me an example to follow as I seek to grow.* (x5)
…and lastly, but most significantly,
8 ) Jesus Christ: All that is good and noble comes through Him. I have never met Him, and yet I see and feel His influence all around me – not always, and perhaps not even most of the time, but I have an assurance that He is closely involved in the details of our lives, whether or not we sense it (the trick, of course is to do our part to better sense and invite Him into our lives). He is my Savior and friend, who makes it possible for me to be cleaned, forgiven, and refined, shaped into someone new and holy. He has the power to heal us of all our infirmities and weaknesses, in the proper time and by the proper processes. His promises are sure: if we will simply trust and follow Him, we will have joy and ultimately eternal life. In the end, there is nothing as important as trusting and following Jesus Christ. I love Him, I want to be like Him, and I want to be with Him. He is my hero.
*One more (very distant) claim to fame: yesterday, thanks to a tip-off from a co-worker, I was able to see Mitt Romney through a cafe window, talking excitedly with some important-looking guys.
**Perhaps if I were truly closer to the action and prestige, and not just a distant intern, it would be harder to shrug off. But really, I haven’t had any substantial brushes with fame, and if I did, they would probably be pretty low-key and relatively unremarkable over all.
***My favorite quote from the article, in regards to a recent presidential photo-op: “Did you notice how they all leaned away from Jimmy Carter, the official Cootieman of former presidents? It was like high-school students to the new girl: “You can’t sit here, we’re the Most Popular table.”
****see “Some Thoughts on the Gospel and the Behavioral Sciences” by Neal A. Maxwell.
* (x5) For some very accessible insights and information on the life and teachings of Joseph Smith, see Joseph Smith the Prophet and The Life and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph, both by Truman G. Madsen.