Monday, February 11, 2013

Who are today's heroes?

My daughter (right, above, with her sister) turns 30 this week, and I decided to send her copies of books by or about people that I have admired.  I wanted her to have real books, not virtual books, because they sit there on your shelf as a reminder that you haven't read them, and eventually you do.  Then, the smell of them cements the memory of their contents:  Smell and memory are closely linked because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system  They will start arriving at her house today or tomorrow, in time for her Valentine's Day celebration.

As I assembled my list, it occurred to me that I do not have an understanding of who serves as heroes for this generation. When I was growing up, we had John and Robert Kennedy to motivate us, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  In life and death, they set standards and told us it was all right to dream.  Even people who had terrible flaws--like Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses--were larger than life, changing the course of American society in a way that suggested that one person with energy and intent could make a difference. Authors like E. B. White taught us lessons about friendship in Charlotte's Web, but then also made us laugh while learning proper grammar.  It is not an accident that many of the students who were in Mr. Morton Harrison's fifth and sixth grade class on Long Island ended up devoting our lives to public service or education or environmental protection.  He was a great teacher who inspired and demanded rigor. Did my daughters receive this gift from any of their teachers?

My musings led to Dag Hammarskjöld.  He was the second Secretary General of the United Nations, at a time when we believed the UN represented the best of world diplomacy and the best chance for sustained peace during a time characterized by the Cold War.  You may recall that he died in an air crash in 1961 while flying to Northern Rhodesia to negotiate a cease-fire between UN and Katanga forces.  His book Markings has some remarkable entries.  I don't know if it has had any influence in your life, but I have always found it a touchstone.  Here's an excerpt about negotiation.  It is as valid about interpersonal relationships in an academic medical center or community hospital--where egos reign but underlying intentions are generally noble--as it is in a diplomat's resolution of a war.

"Concerning men and their way to peace and concord--?"
The truth is so simple that it is considered a pretentious banality.  Yet it is continually being denied by our behavior.  Every day furnishes new examples.
It is more important to be aware of the grounds for your own behavior than to understand the motives of another.
The other's "face" is more important than your own.
If, while pleading another's cause, you are at the same time seeking something for yourself, you cannot hope to succeed.
You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.
The man who "likes people" disposes once and for all of the man who despises them.
All first-hand experience is valuable, and he who has given up looking for it will one day find--that he lacks what he needs: a closed mind is a weakness, and he who approaches persons or painting or poetry without the youthful ambition to learn a new language and so gain access to someone else's perspective on life, let him beware.
A successful lie is doubly a lie, an error which has to be corrected is a heavier burden than truth: only an uncompromising "honesty" can reach the bedrock of decency which you should always expect to find, even under deep layers of evil.
Diplomatic "finesse" must never be another word for fear of being unpopular: that is to seek the appearance of influence at the cost of its reality.

But then note, too, this call to action:

 Never, "for the sake of peace and quiet," deny your own experience or convictions.


e-Patient Dave said...


Jim Siegel said...

Paul -- can you post your list that you've compiled of books?

Paul Levy said...

Sure, Jim. I could have sent dozens more, but I figured this was a good sample. (Also, I know my daughter already has some of the others I would include.) I am sure others will have their own favorites, but here goes:

"Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader" Fadiman, Anne

"Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West"
Ambrose, Stephen E

Dag Hammarskjold

"Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In"
Fisher, Roger

"Getting Past No"
William Ury

"Thinking, Fast and Slow"
Kahneman, Daniel

"John Adams"
McCullough, David

"The Cider House Rules: A Novel"
Irving, John

"The Visual Display of Quantitative Information"
Tufte, Edward R.

"The Painted Canoe "
Anthony C. Winkler

"Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson"
Caro, Robert A.

"The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain"
Twain, Mark

"Famous American Plays of the 1930s (The Laurel Drama Series)"
Harold Clurman

@Lin_Dolin said...

From Twitter:

There are no heroes or leaders today, just money.

Neil Mehta said...

From G+:

Thanks for the fabulous quote from Dag Hammarskjöld.

Unknown said...


Your question is truly compelling.

As a 40-something now it makes me think long and hard not just about *my* heroes (top of the list is my dad), but also those of my kids.

For my son it would seem to be the prototypical Boston sports figures and seems to revolve around how the media is perceiving an individual, and not the individual themselves.

He's young ... and over time would want to teach him, what I believe, is true heroism, and not simply a second order reaction to how an individual is perceived by others in an instant.

After all, heroes are made (again IMHO) over long periods of time with patience and persistence, running contrary to today's general tendency of attempting to mint the same in an instant.

Great post!

Ember said...

I'm 25 and have never seemed to lack for heroes. Although I would never call them sounds dramatic because we live in the over-information age so our heroes often come with flaws. We call them role models or mentors. Steve Jobs, Arianna Huffington, Anna Quindlen, Ted Kennedy, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Nate Silver, Malcolm Gladwell, Rachel Maddow, Bill Gates (his philanthropy in particular) and Bono (for his AIDS work) are all people who I deeply respect and admire for standing up for ideals or for making me think deeply about important things.

I'm sure I could think of more. One great thing about the over-information age is it's easier to have a lot of leading lights and appreciate them for the one or two things they do really well.

I love your idea of a reading list though! I think it's a great gift. and I completely agree with your preference for physical books!