Tag Archives: heroes

Aiming High

On this, the Monday of the first week of our new, post-Mandela world, I’m thinking about heroes and good example and living up to the expectations of those who have gone before us.

Image: forbes.com

Image: forbes.com

Clearly, it is a week for discovering new role models, too. This morning I read, with amazement, the Wikipedia article about Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a distinguished Naval officer and computer programmer who is being commemorated in today’s Google doodle. As I finished educating myself about her life, I mentally added her to my list of ‘heroes’ – for me, people whose lives are singular or inspiring or demonstrative of the idea that doing your best with what you have is the best way to live well – and began to think about ways to fulfil my own potential, and live as fully as I can.

Nelson Mandela has always been a hero to me. Even as a child, I was aware of his struggle – he was still imprisoned then – and I listened to songs like ‘Lion in a Cage’ and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ with a sense of puzzled wonder. Why couldn’t the people keeping this great man locked up understand that he should be free, I wondered? Why was his stature as a hero so clear to all of us, and so hard for his own government to understand? Then, the day of his release finally came. I watched, with millions of others, the footage of his ‘long walk to freedom’ in 1990 which, coming so close on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall, means that my memories of that time are filled with excitement and giddy delight. Even as a child, I understood that these were important days. I knew enough to know that I was privileged to be living through them.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

But heroes are complicated things. Every human being, no matter how remarkable, is still a human being – there will always be elements of each life which will fall far short of perfect. Nelson Mandela – even he! – did not shy away from armed resistance to the apartheid regime, for instance, even though he made huge efforts to ensure that no lives were lost in the process; he felt this was necessary, and even though the idea of violence makes me uncomfortable, I have no doubt but that he was right. An educated, intelligent, reasonable, gentle and humane man, he relied far more on the power of his mind and the weight of his argument to sway people to his way of thinking than he did on violence, and I respect and admire that. The fact that people all over the world, of all colours and all faiths, are united in mourning his passing shows how successful he was at appealing to our higher nature, our compassion, our humanity – and it is because he strove always for peace and equality between peoples that he is remembered so well. Unfortunately, he admitted himself that his family, particularly his children, were asked to suffer too much in the course of his political life and his decades in prison, and that is an unhappy aspect of his legacy. However, in this – as in all things – I am sure he did the best he could, and that is all we can ask of any human being.

Late on Thursday evening last, my husband and I were watching something on BBC Two when a black ‘ticker-tape’ display flashed up on the bottom of our screen. ‘Breaking News on BBC One,’ it read, and so we flicked over to find out what was happening. There were dreadful storms in the UK last week, and so we feared there had been a disaster, or some sort of dreadful loss of life: instead, we were met with a shocked, slightly flustered newsreader announcing Mandela’s passing. Even though he was at an advanced age, and had been suffering with terrible health for some time, I admit I was stunned to learn he had finally succumbed to his illness. As the various TV channels caught the story and started to pay tribute to the lost hero, my stunned feeling became one of sorrow. We watched a special commemorative broadcast – no doubt, sadly, prepared months in advance, ready and waiting for the moment it would be needed – and as the full story of Mandela’s life and the truth of his long, long struggle was played out, I began to realise that this tall, thin man whose face I was so familiar with from my earliest childhood was finally gone, and how much he had done with the time allocated to him on this earth.

We can’t all play pivotal roles in the overthrow of a hated and oppressive regime, and we can’t all invent a computing language while serving as a Navy officer and gaining a PhD in Mathematics. We can’t all become authorities in the field of humane handling of livestock and the rights of autistic people, as another of my heroes (Dr. Temple Grandin) has done. But each life is important and every person is equal, and none of us can make a return trip. Whatever we can do to make the fullest use of our talents, and whatever we can do to improve the lot of others, and whatever we can do to brighten our own tiny corner of the world while we’re here, we should do it. The best way to honour a fallen hero is to conduct yourself in a way that would make them proud – so, living the lessons of Mandela is a good way to pay our respects to his memory.

Here are a few of those lessons, in the words of the great man himself, to be getting on with (and pay attention – there’ll be a test later):

A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.

Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

RIP Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela, 1918 - 2013. Image: harlemworldmag.com

RIP Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela, 1918 – 2013.
Image: harlemworldmag.com

Have a happy, peaceful and productive week – and remember that all things are possible to those with determined minds and open hearts.

The Proust Questionnaire

Today, I feel like answering some questions.

Image: blog.freeforums.org

Image: blog.freeforums.org

Not, of course, that anybody has asked me to answer any of these questions – but that’s beside the point. I scoured the internet for a list of suitable questions, and decided eventually that the best list I could find was this one – a questionnaire made famous by the answers given by Marcel Proust. I won’t answer them all (because we’d be here all day), but I think there are a few excellent questions in here. So, here goes!

My favourite virtue: My favourite virtue is kindness. Proust seemed to take this question as referring to a virtue he possessed himself (and in which he excelled); if that’s the way you’re supposed to answer the question, then my answer stays the same. I try to be kind, and I hope I succeed most of the time.

My favourite qualities in a person: The original questionnaire split this one up into ‘favourite qualities in a woman/man’, but I don’t think that’s really appropriate in our modern age. My favourite qualities in a person would include kindness, but also gentleness, generosity of spirit, compassion and the openness to love.

What I appreciate the most in my friends: I appreciate the fact that I’ve got friends at all! Each of them has their own talents and wonderful qualities, but one thing they all possess is a sense of humour. We make each other laugh so much, my friends and I, and hopefully we always will.

My main fault: I have so many faults, I’ll have to limit myself to the main ones. So – my faults are as follows: I have a quick temper, I tend to close myself off when I’m in a bad mood, I find it hard to multi-task (despite the stereotype about women being better at this than men!), I tend to be impatient, I’m nowhere near healthy enough, I don’t like change and find it hard to cope with, and I’m very (very) stubborn. And that’s just for starters.

My favourite occupation: Whether the questionnaire means occupation in the sense of ‘job’ or ‘pastime’, the answer remains the same: writing! Reading, drawing and walking are not far behind it on the list of favourites.

My idea of happiness: It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy, really. At least, I hope not! Happiness, for me, is knowing that all my loved ones are safe and happy, being with my husband – not necessarily doing anything in particular, just being in his company – and spending time with my family, and knowing that I have enough and I am enough. Happiness is a conscious decision, I think, but it’s one you have to make every day.

My idea of misery: Misery to me is being separated from someone I love. If I don’t see my family for a while, I tend to slump down into sadness, and I hate when my husband is away. Misery would be knowing that this separation was going to be permanent.

If not yourself, who would you be?: This is a dangerous question. I’d like to say I’d love to be a published author (take your pick from Laini Taylor, Kristin Cashore, Jeanette Winterson, Catherine Fisher, and so on), but I know that it’s never a good thing to wish to be someone else. Everyone is carrying their own burdens, and most people carry them with grace and dignity, and so well that another person (even a close friend) may never even guess at them. I may not be able to carry another person’s burdens with the same strength they have. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised it’s a huge blessing to be happy just to be yourself. So, if I couldn’t be me as I am now, I’d like to be me in a year’s time. Just to see what’s changed.

My favourite heroes/heroines: My real-life heroes include my family, particularly my (deceased) grandparents, whose lives were unimaginably different from mine and who surmounted difficulties I know I couldn’t cope with. In history, I admire a huge amount of people, including St. Maximilian Kolbe, Anne Frank, Leonhard Seppala and Gunnar Kaasen and their dogs Togo and Balto, Ada Lovelace, Madame Curie, the Brontes and Austen, Harvey Milk, Sophie Scholl, Marie de France, and so many others. In general I admire any person who does what they can to stand up against oppression, to create art even when they’re told they can’t, who defies injustice and fights to protect their rights and the rights of others, and who doesn’t let their gender or social status hold them back. Not a lot to ask, then.

The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with: I’d love to be able to dance. Not just the belly-wobbling flailing that I get up and do at family weddings, but proper ballet-style dancing. I’d love to be graceful. As it is, I fall over when I stand on one foot.

My favourite motto: I have a few mottos that I really like. These are: ‘All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well,’ which is attributed to Julian of Norwich, a medieval nun. I also love ‘Thaes ofereode; thisses swa maeg’ which is the refrain from an Old English poem named ‘Deor’ (it means ‘That was overcome, and so will this be), and I like to think of this one when I’m facing a challenge. It reminds me that I’ve survived up to now, and I can face whatever’s coming. And I also love a line from Beowulf, which is ‘Gaeth a wyrd swa hio scel’, which roughly means ‘Fate will go as it must’ – in other words, if something is going to happen, it’ll happen. It reminds me that I can’t control anything except myself, and my own reactions to what happens in my life.

Well, I hope this has been an illuminating read! I’d just like to let you know that I won’t be blogging on Monday morning because it’s a Bank Holiday in Ireland (and, more importantly, I won’t have access to a computer that day), so I wanted to wish you all a happy St. Patrick’s Day and a good weekend.

Image: bunclody.net

Image: bunclody.net

Thanks for reading!



This is a momentous day for me. It’s one that I’ll remember for years to come. It’s kind of a life-changing event, actually.

So, what’s happened? Well, I’ve just taken part in the largest re-Tweet in world history – that Tweet being President Obama’s ‘Four More Years’, complete with this photo of him embracing his wife, Michelle. So far, over half a million people have re-Tweeted his message, and have shared this image, and I’m glad to be among them.

Embedded image permalink

It feels good to know he’s been re-elected. Even though I’m not American, the issue of who gets to live in the White House is an important one for me, and for anyone who is interested in the way the world is run. It is a relief to know that a good man, a man who has inclusion and equality at the heart of his campaign, will be at the reins for another four years, and I’m a happy citizen of the world today. Having said that, however, I really dislike the title ‘Leader of the Free World’, sometimes bestowed upon the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, because I think it makes the world seem too simple; my country has its own leaders which we’ve (inexplicably, it seems at times) elected, and we have our own issues and problems. Thinking that we’re just a sub-section of ‘the Free World’ takes away a bit of our independence and agency, and gives the impression that it doesn’t really matter, in the end, what the rest of us do – America stands behind us all, wearing a shirt that says ‘I Got This’. Well, if that’s the way it has to be, I’m glad Obama is the man wearing the shirt, but it’s not really an ideal situation.

The US election, and its outcome, has got me thinking about the idea of leadership, both in the real world and how it’s used in fiction. I wonder are we hard-wired to make any fictional character in a position of leadership into a ‘bad’ character? Most of the fictional figures I can immediately call to mind who occupy any sort of position of leadership or power are shown as tyrants, bullies, hopelessly corrupt, or otherwise incompetent. The Capitol in ‘The Hunger Games’, Mr. Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre’ (until he is ‘humbled’ by injury, and learns to allow some dependence into his life), The Magisterium in the ‘His Dark Materials’ novels are all flawed power structures; as well as these, the way the characters are depicted in ‘The Lord of the Flies’ shows abuse of leadership and power, as does ‘Animal Farm’, as does ‘Brave New World.’ Even in the Harry Potter novels, the ‘good’ leader, Dumbledore, can’t be allowed to remain in position, but must be replaced by an evil, power-hungry, corrupt figure – it’s true that this gives Harry the chance to show his own leadership skills, which I suppose is the point.

Leaders in fiction who are good, brave, noble, self-sacrificing and willing to fight for the good are largely people who have risen from humble beginnings through the power of their own virtue to a position they might never really have wanted in the first place. They don’t always necessarily fight for power, or the right to lead, but sometimes when you fight for what’s right, taking on the mantle of leadership comes with the job. It’s not always the case, but I think you could argue that it’s depicted that way a lot of the time. We read about bad regimes being toppled by brave rebels, corrupt administrations shattered through the efforts of a hero or a group of selfless demi-heroes, and so on. This isn’t always the case in reality – in our world, if a corrupt regime is toppled by rebels, sometimes the replacement regime is as bad, if not worse, as what went before. The idealism in fiction sometimes just doesn’t work in reality.

I suppose this is why a victory like President Obama’s has such resonance, not just for Americans – it really does seem like the hero, who has struggled and who knows what it’s like to fight for what he believes in, has prevailed. The closeness of the election meant that the ‘story’ had tension, drama and suspense; all these things make the resolution even more satisfying. It’s like watching a story come to life, in some ways, and it’s wonderful to feel like there’s been a happy ending to the tale. Well, it’s more than that, of course. Stories need conflict to work – the idea of reading about how a good leader rules well, and how all his people/subjects/citizens love him and want him to remain at the helm forever, is a little ‘fairytale-esque’ for most tastes (not that there’s anything wrong with fairytales, of course!) Normally in writing we need to make leaders and power structures corrupt and evil, ready to be toppled by our bright hero, so that there’s danger, conflict, peril and a story arc, and therefore a bit of interest for the reader or audience. Today, however, it does feel like a noble leader has succeeded, despite the fact that he hasn’t exactly toppled a terrible regime, per se. Clearly, however, the majority felt that President Obama was a better choice than the alternative, and so – in fiction terms, if nothing else – a ‘terrible regime’ has been avoided, perhaps. At least, that’s how it looks from this vantage point. It feels like something wonderful has been started, and it feels like there’s a reason to be hopeful.

Well, unless you’re a Republican, in which case I sympathise. Better luck next time.