It is a relatively easy act to admire someone at a distance – geographic or temporal. For instance, who was the person who first figured out that if you planted seeds and took care of the earth a bit (when did they start watering instead of waiting for rain? when did manure fertilizing enter their picture?) instead of just waiting for delectable stuff to grow. Who figured out that if wood could float, hollowed wood could hold people and help them travel? Or was it the raft that was the first water vessel? Who made the first music for celebration? Who made the first music for entertainment, or when did the two diverge and who helped that happen? Who told the first story, not as in “I caught the BIGGEST fish you’ve ever seen today, but it slipped through my hands and got away,” but as in “past where we can no longer see light or dark, past where animals roam and plants grow, there is a place where there are no people but only magic” (I may be paraphrasing and using contemporary English, but you get the idea).
It is always fun to ruminate (a fun word that applies to digestive processes as well as thinking). When discussing the practices of our ancient ancestors, we get to pick through their bones (when we find them), pick through their living quarters (when we find them), and speculate about what might have been. But that’s all we have. The rest is speculation. We didn’t know how to plant things right away. We didn’t come out of the birth canal with a boat in our hand, a song in our hearts, and a story on our tongues. But all we’ll ever know about that time is what we can intuit.
But let’s be more practical. Let’s talk about heroes, which is meant to include all humans, never mind the gender, who have accomplished something for the common good in their time. And let’s talk about people we actually know. The people I admire the most arguably fall into this second category. First, the heroes.
If we are honest with ourselves this list pretty much has to include anyone who has demonstrated an enduring intelligence, who wrote or was quoted as saying something that comes forward to us today and which illuminates and enriches our life. I emphasize that their words or deeds must be for the common good; the more people impacted positively the better the person. There are so many of the Greek philosophers, who were proto-scientists as well, the purveyors of the original gedankenexperiments (thought experiments) that fall into this category. How amazing it is that Socrates, in the throes of defending his didactic and philosophical practices before the Athenian court is documented by his student Plato as saying “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates himself wrote nothing down; we owe what we know to his students).
Then you have to think about all of the individuals throughout time who saw inequity, who saw injustice and barbarity and demanded change, often at the risk of their own life and the lives of their followers. The inconvenient people who, through challenging the status quo, make life better for everyone, ultimately including those who were the oppressors.
How is it, for instance, that so many countries in “western civilization” did not treat women as people with equal rights to men until the 20th century (it can be argued convincingly that this is very much an ongoing struggle)? How is it that men in power unleashed their police forces on women who protested for their right to vote? There are too many women to name in this category and I do not know as much about the movement as I should, so I will leave this as is.
Then you have the huge number of free and enslaved people from oppressed populations around the world who have first used reason and religion and a plea for human decency and the law to achieve equality, then used public demonstrations when words would not work. I could easily relate this exclusively to the struggle of enslaved Africans who were brought to the “new world” and enslaved, but the history of enslavement is a more global and multi-ethnic aspect of the human experience than this would suggest. For instance, when Columbus and the Spanish “discovered” Hispaniola (a name superimposed over whatever the Arawak natives called it) in 1492, they immediately got busy trying to enslave the Arawaks and build a place suitable for these self-important invaders. The Arawaks would have none of it and the Spanish started killing them off and importing Africans instead. That was about 500+ years ago and there are still people here and around the world who think this fat chunk of history is behind us and all is healed. In spite of the efforts of Denmark Vesey, Tunis Campbell, Robert Smalls, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other freedom-fighters there are still irrational divisions in this country regarding civil rights. Each one of these people, and Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, so many others are heroes. Throw in Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi while we’re at it. Listing everyone who has achieved admirable advances in their country and for an increasing number of our fellow human beings is a fool’s errand though. I could just list their names and it would take days.
So, as they say in R&B music, let’s take it down a little bit. I have worked with and for people I admire. I’ve thought about what it is that I admire in them, what makes me bow (inwardly) when I am in their prescence or when I consider what they’ve taught me. Each of them has been entirely comfortable in their own skin as a good human being above all other matters. Their existence as intelligent, hard-working, insightful, provocative, frame-shifting forces of nature is something that they simply exude like honeysuckle exudes its sweet aroma and cinnamon makes you search the airport for that smell and eat a sugar-slathered roll roughly the size of your own head (I have evolved – I now resist this smell and go the other way). They aren’t showy, they don’t demean those who don’t get what they are thinking or saying or writing, they don’t pretend to be holier than the rest of us, don’t take their intelligence as a license to exert power over us. They teach us how to be a better version of ourselves, through gentle asides, through their manner towards others, through their moments of blinding insights that become obvious and comfortable as we consider them in our own time and as we can. Everything they attempt (usually activities that are well within their intellectual means) seem to be entirely encompassed by their overall capacity for achieving good outcomes for the people they know and work with.
These people have been my professors, my supervisors, my coworkers, people who just grind out good work and benevolent attitudes towards their fellow creatures every day (or at least while I am present – there is always the possibility that some sampling error could be at play here). I have been humbled to know as many as I have and hope to meet more of them.
So, while it is fine to admire those whom you will never meet and fine to speculate over who made the first transformative changes in human history, it is probably more important to find people whom you have admired during your own experiences and understand what it is that made you feel that way. We each have a very valuable individual experience of our world. Owning our experiences and finding those whom we have admired, who have enriched our experience, is part of what it is to be human.