The late afternoon chill on Black Friday was palpable and served to make the waning of a crisp fall day in Oxford, MS as Rockwellian as one could imagine. The Courthouse Square played host to family and friends absorbed in their post-Thanksgiving shopping. Fathers held their young daughter’s hands as they strolled the sidewalks. Mothers pushed their toddlers in strollers across the once treacherous Van Buren Avenue intersection. A newly engaged couple celebrated as they approached The Balcony of the City Grocery restaurant, where their families cheered and clapped. It felt like—dare I say—a little piece of Paradise.

My friend Price stepped out onto The Balcony. We exchanged the niceties as we Southerners are wont to do, then he said, “Stephen Sondheim died today. It’s tough when our heroes die.” This composer and mega musician friend went on to tell of how he had been a disciple of Sondheim for decades, being inspired by him like no other.

Another friend, Clay, was sitting with me. He and I grew suddenly pensive. We knew of what Price spoke. After a few brief moments of silence, Clay and I spoke words of consolation to Price and acknowledged our brotherhood in the fear of the eventual passing of all our heroes, and the anticipatory grief we all felt. But in that moment a hero’s death was very present in our midst.

Celebrating Stephen Sondheim at 90
Credit: Getty Images

What makes a hero a hero? The use of the term has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that sometimes it seems like a participation trophy. In the context of which I write, a hero is a person who is admired and revered—one who inspires us, and in so doing, moves us from the inside out to be our best.

Our heroes are personal. They are intimate parts of the core of our being, sometimes reaching the level of the mythological. Something about them magically resonates with something inside us and we are captivated. After that we build our own stories about them, a combination of fact and fantasy. The famous often become our heroes—celebrities, scientists, philosophers, athletes—but there are also the comparatively unknown like teachers, relatives, artisans, small business owners, spiritual mentors, and friends.

The Gospel According to Me says that it doesn’t matter much who our heroes are. What matters most is what we believe about them and how they impact our lives.

Buddhism teaches us that much, if not most, of our suffering comes from our attachments to people, things, ideas, expectations, etcetera. That explains why we sometimes don’t feel much, if anything, when someone we’ve never known or had contact with dies. Exceptions to that include those that die in war and those who are killed in the massacres that have become pervasive in our day.

We are attached to our heroes, thus, when they die, we grieve.

There is a richness in such grief. It says that someone meant something to us. It says that we were able to connect with another, even if we didn’t know them in the flesh. This grief also carries with it responsibility. As the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy said, “…the torch has been passed to a new generation…” Whatever, whomever, set off the spark that turned into a fire in us is now ours. We have become the keepers of the flame.

What do we owe to our heroes? We owe them the gratitude for having given us ideals that may have previously been foreign to us. We owe them thanks for the inspiration we received from them and whatever it was in life that drew us to them. And as we get older, we owe them respect that, despite their flaws and shortcomings, they did something that was authentic that we could hold onto when we really needed something to hold on to.

We also owe it to our heroes to recognize that we, too, might be a hero to someone else. We may never know it, but perhaps in some small way, insignificant to us, someone else may find a bit of inspiration in something we say, something we do, some way we are, that enables them to say “Yes!” to life in that very moment. There may be no greater legacy.

(Originally published in Oxford, Mississippi’s The Local Voice,

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