Suppose for a moment you are fortunate enough to attend the worldwide Olympics. You hear the announcement over the loudspeaker that the high jump will be the next event. With great anticipation you scan the infield but are puzzled to see no high jump pit. It is nowhere to be found. Then the announcement is made that the high jump pit has been removed. Instead, the contestants have been informed that they are to find an open space and then jump as high as they can. The contestants are stunned and protest the decision but are told they don’t need a bar — that theoretically, they can jump just as high without it.
The thought crosses your mind, “The officials can’t be serious. Everyone knows that the high jump bar extracts every last bit of energy and strength a contestant has and thus lifts him or her to greater heights than otherwise possible.” Real life has taught you that there is an enormous difference between academic theory and concrete reality.
And that is why we need heroes. They are concrete reality — the standard — the bar that lifts us to greater heights than otherwise possible on our own. More than a platitude — more than a moral principle — they constitute the real-life example of a man or woman who has “done it” and thus possess the inherent power to unleash the divine potential within us, to lift us to new, even seemingly unattainable heights.
Learning about heroes is much more than a history lesson, much more than an intellectual exercise or fact-finding mission. It causes a stirring of our heart and soul that refines and purifies our character. Heroes eliminate excuses and a victim mentality. They demonstrate godlike attributes in their lives and thus give us an increased vision of who we really are and what we really can become. And with that increased vision comes increased motivation.
Heroes are much more than idols or celebrities. They are individuals who bring out the best in us — who help us participate in the “godly walk” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:69) towards eternal life. Fortunately, heroes are not just glowing lights of the distant past, but everywhere around us — the friend who suffers without losing faith, the businessman who is honorable even when the law doesn’t require it, the mother who sacrifices her own personal interests in order to spend quality time with her children, and the patriot who stands up for our country and Constitution even when it may not be popular to do so.
Heroes help us know that mortals with all their faults and weaknesses can rise above them and achieve greatness — even godliness. They are what give us hope and strength to be better and carry on even in moments of despair or discouragement. Simply said, heroes inspire greatness in both individuals and nations. While it is believed, but not known with certainty if Abraham Lincoln expressed this sentiment, it nonetheless rings with truth: “Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.”
Fortunately, we have many heroes in American history who deserve our respect and admiration, such as the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln. Of course, these individuals were not perfect, but if we will focus on their incredible accomplishments — their sacrifices and efforts in the establishment and preservation of this blessed nation — rather than their few weaknesses, and in addition, avoid the trap of presentism, then we will discover heroes worthy of our emulation. Then we will have heroes who can inspire us with a positivism and patriotism that is wholesome and uplifting.
Likewise, we have many religious heroes who act as spiritual catalysts that lift us to higher ground. As a young man I loved the story of the 2,000 sons of Helaman and wanted to be like them — filled with faith and courage and honor. No doubt Mormon looked upon Moroni, the commander-in-chief of the Nephite armies, as a hero, when he penned: “Verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men” (Alma 48:17). This is one reason it is so important to study the scriptures — to discover spiritual heroes who can serve as our role models.
Nonetheless, there are some who want to degrade or denounce many of our heroes of the past, simply because they were imperfect — a condition with which all mortals are afflicted. For example, some people may focus on Babe Ruth and his numerous strikeouts, but in the process fail to recognize one if not the greatest home run hitter of all time. Some may focus on the missing head and arms of the famed statute “Winged Victory,” but in the process completely miss the masterpiece which it is universally acclaimed to be. And likewise, some might focus on Peter’s momentary loss of faith and his sinking in the water, but in the process lose sight of the fact that for a few steps he actually walked on water. How many people do you know that have walked on water, even for a few steps? Some become so obsessed with an individual’s imperfections, that in the process they fail to recognize their more than compensating strengths, and thus the heroes they really are.
It may not be a moral imperative to have heroes, but the man or woman who does have heroes has one more incentive to be better than the person who has none. Heroes are a bar that lift us heavenward. To denounce heroes or live without them is to live without that bar — to “jump” beneath our potential, both individually and as a nation.
— Elder Tad R. Callister is an emeritus General Authority Seventy and former Sunday School general president.