The group of parents at the next table was abuzz, dissecting the latest scandal involving a professional athlete. One of them shook her head sadly. Really, she asked, who is left for our kids to look up to?
Everyone wondered aloud where all the heroes had gone.
I have a different question.
How did we get the idea that a hero is someone who does an impressive job catching, hitting or throwing a ball? When did we decide that bravery was defined by how fast a person could run or cycle? Why do we measure courage by how beautifully a person can sing or model a gown?
When long hours on a practice field or in a practice room yield outstanding results, that's called success, not heroism. The pursuit of excellence does not equal valor. A hero isn't just accomplished; a hero makes personal sacrifices for the greater good.
Whether in fiction or actual history, true heroes do not walk through the flames unscathed. On the contrary, they often lose some of the things - and people - they love the most. From Moses and Moshe Dayan to Nathan Hale and Harriet Tubman, from Raoul Wallenberg and Hannah Senesh to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks - and even from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen - heroes take the hit.
At times, heroes are even reviled. Two of the greatest leaders in history, President Abraham Lincoln and Sir Winston Churchill, made bold, brave decisions that were unpopular with a large minority of the population. We remember the enduring importance of what they accomplished, often overlooking what it cost them personally. Lincoln's reward for saving the Union was assassination; Churchill's prize for standing up to Hitler was to be trounced at the polls immediately thereafter.
So, where can we find heroes today?
Recently, I attended a beautiful college graduation. I will never forget the look on the faces of the couple seated near us, whose daughter was the first in their family to get a degree. That couple had worked for decades to make this opportunity possible for their child. The fatigue was etched on their faces - but that day fatigue was overshadowed by pride.
I looked at the couple, quietly holding hands, and thought: That's what heroes look like.
We will never learn about them on the news. We will never know what opportunities they gave up - Night school? Nice vacations? More interesting jobs that paid less? - to ensure that their kids had a better life.
Good Samaritans who pull passengers from burning cars make the news. Quiet, everyday heroes like those parents fly under the radar. There's no adrenaline rush or drama, just the steadfast pulse of people who make regular sacrifices for someone or something they love more than themselves.
The honors student who arises at 4 a.m. to work the morning shift before going to school, helping to support his immigrant family.
The Army wife (or husband) who lives as a single parent for months and months on end while her spouse is deployed.
The executive heading a company reorganization project who decides her own job should be cut first.
The teacher who dips into his own pocket to buy needy students books and school supplies.
The mom who ends a rewarding career outside the home to care for a disabled family member.
Where have all the heroes gone? They are everywhere; sitting next to you on the el or standing behind you in line at the grocery store, taking your order at a restaurant or giving orders at a construction site, in the next cubicle or the house next door.