I have always had a fascination with heroes. As a child I loved learning about saints. Later when I began to realize that none of us are ever as perfect as I had imagined those blessed individuals to be I found new people to inspire me. Among them was John F. Kennedy. Even then I understood that at times he had disappointingly human failings but when his courage was most needed he more than once managed to rise to the occasion. During World War II he saved a number of his fellow crew members on PT 109 in an effort that left him plagued with chronic back pain for the rest of his life. During the terrifyingly dark October days of the Cuban missile crisis he maintained a strong and cool head managing not just to defer a possible nuclear strike on American soil but also to prompt the Soviet Union to dismantle the warheads that had been aimed so dangerously toward cities in the United States.
About the same time in life that I was so deeply impressed with President Kennedy I also read the classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The book truly was a masterpiece that captured a time, a place, and a people with such clarity and compassion. In particular, as a fatherless child I fell hopelessly in love with Atticus Finch who in that novel appeared to epitomize the best of fatherly characteristics. He was a noble man whose lessons to his children and his small town reverberated through my psyche. For all these many years since the early nineteen sixties when I first read that book Atticus has been one of my heroes and the story itself has remained firmly ensconced in my top ten all time favorites reads.
As someone who writes daily I was a bit dubious about the possibility that a new manuscript from author Harper Lee would be as wonderful as her Pulitzer Price winning lone book. I understand the writing process all too well and I surmised that since her newly found piece had not undergone the tedious two year editing and revising efforts of To Kill a Mockingbird it seemed unlikely that it would be as wonderful as the book that I so love. I was not among those who pre-ordered her newest effort, nor was I particularly excited about its release. I believed that there had to be a reason why Ms. Lee had allowed her work to remain hidden for all these years. Of course we are only beginning to learn that the story is a huge disappointment to those who like me idolized the character Atticus Finch. Supposedly in the newest book he has become a changed man who is barely recognizable as the courageous defender of justice that we all know.
What I find most interesting about Ms. Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is that Atticus and the other characters have not just evolved but in some cases have grown into disagreeable individuals with little or no moral compass. As a constant observer of humans I have generally found the opposite to be true. Unless an individual is overly enticed by fame and fortune, most people become better as they age, particularly those who demonstrate high moral character in their youth. It would have taken more than just the passage of time for someone like Atticus to become the supposedly hateful person that he is in the latest telling of the fate of our old familiar characters. For that reason I surmise that Harper Lee understood that her original story should never see the light of day. The draft was only an idea that she once had and not something that the rest of the world needed to discover. She had abandoned the original Atticus in favor of the one that he became in To Kill a Mockingbird and so she hid her first story inside a safety deposit box for decades.
Sometimes we really do get more information than we want. We don’t have to know the backstory of everyone that we admire, even those who are fictional. We always need heroes and yet in today’s world there are those who seem to delight in destroying the reputations of those in whom we have placed our faith and our honor. It is called truth telling but it often feels more sinister. I really don’t have to know that Franklin Roosevelt died in the arms of his mistress. Perhaps it is a bit naive on my part but I do in fact believe that we should keep our icons intact, realizing that every single one of us has aspects of behavior of which we are not particularly proud. It just doesn’t seem right to have our heroes tarnished again and again as is so often the vogue today. In fact, I have become rather weary of politicians and journalists who drag the reputations of good men and women through the mud for their own entertainment and power. I am one of those people who thinks that we should assess the true measure of a person not by the private failings that tempt them but by how they respond when they face tremendous challenges that would daunt mere mortals.
Yesterday I learned of a man that few in the world might ever have known and yet he is a kind of modern day Oskar Schindler. His name is Khalil al-Dakhi. He was once just a small time lawyer in northern Iraq, plying his trade with little notice. He is from a tribe of Iraqi people known as Yazidis. They have historically been a rather small and isolated group who practice an ancient religion very unlike Islam. They have generally coexisted peacefully with their Muslim countrymen even though they have often been misunderstood.
Since the ISIS takeover of the town where they once lived most of them have been surviving as displaced refugees. Hundreds of Yazidi men were killed by ISIS and many of the women and children were captured and taken as slaves. Members of ISIS rape the women and believe that little girls as young as nine or ten years old should become their brides. Those held in captivity live in degradation and horror, sometimes being gang raped by as many as twelve men at a time.
Khalil al-Dakhi initially set out to create a database of who was among the missing from the Yazidi people. Before long he began to learn more and more about the fates of those captured by ISIS. Somehow his mission evolved into leading a kind of modern day underground railroad whose purpose is to find and free as many of the ISIS slaves as possible. He and a small group of Yazidi fighters determine the locations of individuals being held against their wills and time and again manage to guide them to freedom and to their families. Their work is dangerous and some have already died in their efforts but as Khalil’s fame has grown among the Yazidis so too have the requests for his services. He has become an incredible hero to the hundreds of people whom he and his men have saved.
We all need to hear of people such as Khalil al-Dakhi. It is all too easy for us to feel somewhat cynical about the ultimate fate of our world if we only listen to the grumbling and whining that is so prevalent in our society. Underneath the din of discontent there are people like Khalil who are showing us what true heroism is all about. Those who are truly great somehow overcome their own flaws in times of need. They find courage that they may not have even known that they possessed. They stand up for what is just and fight for the seemingly most insignificant people because they understand the value of every human life.
These are the people that I admire. They are the ones who keep my own faith in mankind burning brightly. We may not be familiar with their names or the work that they do each day but they are the true backbone of progress in our most imperfect world. Theirs are the stories that I desire to hear. I want my heroes and I suspect that most of the rest of the world does as well. I am not naive about the best among us but I don’t need to be constantly reminded of their imperfections. I’ll keep my heroes. They have served me well throughout my life. I need them and I think that perhaps all of us do.