OPINION | We need heroes

This isn’t about Eric’s Little Heroes on Channel 4. This is about a stratospheric level of heroism that arises from inspired service on behalf of others. It is heroism typified by selfless acts that ask no reward other than the satisfaction of looking back on good deeds well done. We desperately need heroes of that measure to show us what can and should be done.

There have been quite a number of lesser “heroes” who inspired followers for a time before they fell. Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds, John Edwards and their ilk. Their comings and goings don’t shake our foundations. They’re actors on the public stage. Nothing more.

Sno-Isle Library stocks 104 various copies of two titles by recent hero Greg Mortenson. That’s more than they carry of any two Harry Potter titles and an indication of how he inspired Marysville readers. I passed my copy of Three Cups of Tea around, a book in which he recounted his hands-on ministry of funding and building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s rural hot-spots and how he bonded with simple villagers and militant radicals to educate girls in a society that counted females unworthy of advancement.

In his second book, Stones into Schools, he told how he planted new schools in the remotest reaches of the Hindu Kush range, inspiring this writer as few others have. If you, too, were caught up as I was, you shared my dismay when Mortenson was exposed for exaggerating and distorting facts and misusing funds donated to his organization, the Central Asia Institute.

Reactions to the exposé range from disappointment to rage. His heroism collapsed like an inflatable yard display. Our self-centered society was counting on him to raise the bar for selfless giving. It is saddening that details of his misdeeds provide traction for crowing ranks of detractors whose anger has certainly touched his family.

Some are disposed to act out disillusionment and maybe their ire is necessary to instruct future heroes. Yet critics bent on throwing Mortenson under the bus are missing something. Mortenson is not a bad person. His inadequacies and weaknesses make him not very different from the rest of us.

Not one of us is playing with a full deck. With luck, we make it through life without publicly exposing shortcomings. We do what we’re good at. We avoid sports that make us look like klutzes. Of course cherry-picking the choicest from among our mix of abilities leads to narrower lives than if we entered arenas where we’d strike out now and then.

Mortenson saw a need for schools where there were none and responded. That was good. But he was woefully ill-prepared for the public and administrative ends of it, yet he barged along as though he knew what he was doing. For years, it was pretty much a one-man show and that one man’s image swelled to unreal proportions on the media’s stage. We admired him. We loved him.

Within a few short years, Mortenson went from sleeping in his car to visiting the White House. He became a media darling. The tragedy is that the real boots-on-the-ground Mortenson had integrity that the made-for-media Mortenson lacked. His new role was so disconnected from his Peace Corps-type activity in Afghanistan that his anchors slipped.

Working in the Hindu Kush had been pretty basic. Find a needy village. Stack stones high enough to support a roof and you have a school. But life as head of the Central Asia Institute became complex. Do interviews, write books, hob-knob with rich donors, travel incessantly from one speaking engagement to the next. Try to carve out enough time to be a loving husband and father.

As the Mortenson myth grew larger he did his best to be the bigger-than-life person the press expected him to be, but to bring that off he took certain liberties with the truth. He was, after all, about as gifted and faulted as the rest of us. He would find out too late that the public’s adulation can be terribly corrosive to one’s character.

I’ve heard him described as sociopathic and evil and that his fabrications and malfeasance mark him as dangerously deviant. If so, then his critics should be thankful that they never had the chance to walk his path because it is certain that some of them would, like Mortenson, be drawn into inhabiting the myths that the media would spin around them.

Mortenson stumbled because of weakness in the areas of administration, delegation and accountability for which he was unprepared. His supposition that he could paint a better picture of events added the fault of self-delusion. As Dirty Harry Callahan said in the film Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

History will show that the good Mortenson does outweighs his errors. Yes, he bent truth, spent donors’ money unwisely and disappointed millions who looked up to him. Nevertheless, I hope his legacy will escape Lincoln’s observation that, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”


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