When I was 9 years old, my heroes were Detroit Tiger greats Al Kaline and Willie Horton. Like just about every other kid in the neighborhood, I rooted and watched in adoration, wishing someday to be like them. I mimicked their behavior on the field, giving special attention to what they did while at bat.
Every hitter in baseball performs a uniquely personal ritual before each pitch. This ritual consists of a series of specific behaviors: stepping away from the plate, adjusting themselves (sometimes in PG rated fashion), glancing toward the third base coach for signs, more often than not they spit – no one spits like big league ball players – then stepping back into the batter’s box, perhaps tapping the plate or their cleats, before going into their stance. They do the same thing, the same way, every single time. While every hitter engages in these behaviors for the same reason – to help them focus – both the specifics of the ritual and the batting stance are highly individualistic; no two hitters do it quite the same.
While I imitated their behavior on the field and developed my own set of batting rituals, I knew very little about my heroes’ personal lives and didn’t really think much about it. I was far more concerned with their batting averages then what they like off the field. Since I didn’t know what they were like as real people, they couldn’t actually teach me much about real life. They were heroes, not role models.
The real role models were the people in my immediate environment: my parents, my older siblings, my teachers at school. They were the ones who taught me how to be responsible, how to conduct myself in public, the proper way to treat other people, how to respond to adverse circumstances, how to give and how to receive. And so much more. While they used words to instruct and correct, observing their behavior was what laid the foundations for my values and attitudes as an adult. The most powerful lessons came from what they did, not what they said.
As a young adult, the notion of hero worship seemed awkward and unnecessary. I had become much too sophisticated and cynical for something so childish. But I still had role models. They came in the form of my coworkers, other caregivers whose behavior I admired based on my own values. My formal training and directives from management instructed me to treat the residents with caring and respect, but they couldn’t tell me how to do it. It was in watching how other caregivers approached and responded to residents, the real-life interactions with all the give and take within the context of care, that provided the model and showed me how to practice genuine compassion. The lesson was in the act and how it made me feel while I observed it.
Later in life, I rediscovered the concept of heroes. However, instead of the larger than life athletes of my youth, they came in the form of everyday people whose behavior I found inspiring in some way. Like a 9 year-old rider named Nathan who I met when I began taking horseback riding lesson a few years ago. Both Nathan and I were beginners, starting at the same skill level. We didn’t end that way.
Nathan was born with a moderate form of cerebral palsy. However, through treatment, including a long series of surgeries, a lot of physical therapy and tons of family and community support, Nathan was able to ride a horse. Not only did he learn how to ride, but he started performing as an equestrian vaulter.
Equestrian vaulting is a unique sport and performance art that combines elements of dance and gymnastics on a moving horse. The horse moves at either the walk or the canter and is tethered by a lunge line operated by an instructor or coach who thus controls the horse’s movement. This leaves the rider free to focus on his or her performance.
I participated in vaulting too. But I never progressed past the walk. While the movements at the beginning level are relatively simple, the fact that the horse is moving complicated things and I couldn’t master even the basic movements at the canter. But Nathan did.
By the time I discontinued my lessons four years later, Nathan was riding at a couple levels above me. As impressive as that was, what really inspired me was the manner and attitude he brought to the sport. As a performance art, so much of equestrian vaulting is about presentation: doing something that is very difficult and making it look easy. While the movements require technical skill and considerable physical exertion, each one is capped with a moment of showmanship: the graceful wave, the smile, the playing to the audience and judges. In these moments, Nathan excelled. He was a natural, the source of his audience appeal came from within. He absolutely loved being on the horse and performing in front of those people. It wasn’t just his success in overcoming the physical obstacles that I found heroic, it was his courageous and irrepressible desire to experience and express joy in what he was doing.
More recently, my concept of heroes has blended with who I consider role models. It’s just one thing now. I am inspired by and want to emulate anyone who, like Nathan, refuses to allow difficult circumstances to keep them from finding happiness and meaning in their engagement with the world around them.
The reality is that if you live long enough, you’re going to experience loss and change, sometimes deep loss and drastic change. We all, at any age, can experience a sense of existential dread, that underlying anxiety that the things we rely on to give us our identity can breakdown and be taken from us. For our elders in Long Term Care, that dread often is their reality. I admire and learn from those who have suffered this kind of loss, but are willing not just to continue, but have the courage to redefine what to them makes life worth living. As I enter my seventh decade on this planet, these are my heroes, these are my role models.
As caregivers, we need not be passive bystanders, silent admirers to the courage of our elders. Since we are there, with them, we have an opportunity to play a crucial role in facilitating that courage. It’s not a matter of simply telling them that life is still worth living, but to discover to the best of our ability what that means for them, one person at a time. Because that definition is as unique and individual as the batting rituals of the heroes of my youth.