Behold the Hero

17 Sep

Last night, I happened to wander into our living room where my sister and mother were watching Dancing with the Stars. I had heard that Alek Skarlatos, one of the American heroes who stopped a terrorist on a train in France, was performing. My sister told me that he had already performed and had done very well. She asked if I wanted her to back it up so that I could watch, and I said yes.

I watched him dance with a beautiful blonde professional dancer. Indeed, he did very well. The lights played over him and his beautiful partner. The camera occasionally panned over the adoring audience. He looked handsome in his tailored suit and reminded me somehow of the beast from Disney’s animated feature Beauty and the Beast. At the end of the dance, the judges could not pour out enough praise for him. They seemed genuinely impressed with his foxtrot.

As I watched all of this unfold, a slight tear came to my eye. I envied him, but I also admired him. Yet, there was another emotion that seemed to take precedence over all the others. I also felt sorry for him. How could one man absorb all that adoration? He was not just a hero of TV or film like Tom Cruise, Matt Damon or Liam Neeson. He was an actual real live hero who had done something almost unfathomably brave and possibly saved the lives of dozens or hundreds of people. He was the very definition of a hero. He had gone, unarmed, against a man with several guns, disabled him, and lived to tell about it. He was not an actor who played a hero in films. He was the hero that those films are about. And there he was, on national television, being thanked in person by celebrities, as bright lights played over him and cameras panned to the faces of his proud parents. How could one man stand it?

If I were in his position, I would go through a period of mania in which it seemed like anything was possible. Afterward, the period of mania would be followed by a period of depression. During my period of depression, I would recall something I had said during my period of mania that might have made me seem phony, immodest, or self-absorbed. The feeling that I had let people down would make me much more miserable than if I had never experienced any of it at all.

As I pondered these things, I realized that Alek Skarlatos is a hero in a second way. He stood up for the people on the train by taking down a terrorist. However, he is standing up for all of us again. He is standing in the bright lights and taking in all that glory so that we do not have to do it ourselves. We can watch his experience as a real life hero from a safe distance and relate to him without having to deal with the intense emotional baggage that is likely to ensue. We do not have to wonder if something will happen to embarrass us, like some thug attacking us or challenging us to a fight to prove to the world that we are not so heroic after all. We do not have to risk a slur from some jealous actor who is sitting next to us on a talk show who realizes he is being out shown. We do not have to worry about some famous person offering us drugs and taking offense if we refuse. We do not have to worry about being asked to sponsor a product or a political campaign in a way that seems overtly boastful. We do not have to worry about making any of the mistakes that someone who is new to celebrity is likely to make in a world that is full of people who secretly want to see every hero unmasked.

I admire Alek Skarlatos, and I envy him. However, I would not quite want to be him. I simply could not deal with what he is going to have to deal with. Every night that he is on Dancing with the Stars people will be reminded of why he is there. His celebrity, after all, is not actor, or activist or politician. It is “hero”. Every time he is in the spotlight, literally millions of people will be studying him to see how a hero dresses, when a hero smiles, how a hero responds to complements and how a hero reacts to criticism. They will be watching in anxious anticipation to see if he makes a misstep or if someone else makes a misstep for him. They will be wondering where he will go from here. He seems OK as a dancer. Maybe he could play a hero in a movie or TV series. What if he is a lousy actor? Maybe he should become an inspirational speaker. Maybe he should write a book. What if he writes a book and it is boring?

We should all thank Alek Skarlatos for saving those people on the train. However, perhaps we owe him a greater debt for the sacrifice he I making now. Like Jesus, who died on a cross to save us from our sins, Alek is bearing the cross of standing in for all of us and taking on the role of a genuine action hero. He is standing in the bright lights and absorbing all the accolades so that we can feel closer to that role without being close enough to get hurt.

Thank you Alek Skarlatos for the risk you undertook. However, thank you even more for the greater risk you are presently undertaking. I realize you did not ask for any of this, but it is your burden to bear. I will pray that this goes well for you and that you find your way down this road in peace.

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