What It Means to Be a Hero (from The Crumbling Mansions)

A new piece from my book on homelessness …


I’m always hesitant to use names in my writing, whether names of organizations or names of people, because I don’t want to slander and am afraid of a libel suit. However, I cannot write this piece effectively unless I use names. It will by no means be definitive, but the names that I do use will obviously be loaded with implications of closeness and respect.

I greatly appreciate the work that The Legacy Initiative of Utah does. They are an organization who recently had the privilege to be recorded for a documentary series called The Nation of Heroes.

What follows will be my understanding of the documentary and its unique place in my life and its unique place in the history of humanitarian work in general.

I learned a lot from the documentary. I learned a lot that I didn’t know. Travis, the leader of the organization, described how he literally started with nothing … nothing, that is, but an idea.

It has been theorized that sometimes it just takes one idea to change the world.

Travis, with his dear friend Tedd, created The Legacy Initiative, which includes outreach work, such as giving food and hygiene kits and the like to the homeless … among many other things.

What I admire is that they literally started with nothing, but are willing to put in the work, which includes a lot of footwork that isn’t always appreciated, and that takes a special dedication and effort that many wouldn’t be up to doing. The documentary about The Legacy Initiative shows how in just one day, Travis and his friends (including Tracy and Charity) went from making the burritos in the morning, to preparing the outreach and doing the outreach, to cleaning up the streets at night. This is the kind of work that many should be doing in our society, but curiously, aren’t.

I learned from this documentary what it means to be a hero. How these people have the humility to put in the kind of work that they do, of literally dedicating an entire day to helping those in need. As Jennifer said at one point, it’s easy to be accused of caring too much: But in all honesty, I don’t see how we could ever care enough, and this is illustrated by the tasks I described earlier.

That day, in the documentary, I was part of the outreach part during the middle of the day, where we gave out food and necessary supplies to the homeless. My father quipped, after watching the documentary, that apparently I don’t “like the limelight.” I responded that this was a collaborative effort and I didn’t want to hog the limelight; this is important when considering how informative the documentary was for me, to opening my eyes to the kind of dedication and compassion that is so severely lacking with organizations nowadays.

Tedd and Travis and Tracy are three people and friends of mine who “walk the walk,” as was implied in the documentary, which means that they literally get into the midst of it, the grit of it. I recently attended a homeless commission meeting with my friend Nick, who has been helping me gain some ground in helping the homeless, and I was disappointed that generally, it seemed that it was people in suits talking about the plight of the homeless and what ought to be done … with no one at the ground level. But the people that are part of The Legacy Initiative are willing to do the thankless work and walk in the trenches. They do this even when, as Charity said, powerful organizations put up fences to block people, such as members of The Legacy Initiative, from helping the homeless, and thereby segregating the homeless as well. This part of the documentary is particularly poignant to me, because the documentary shows the intense fencing around the premises of a shelter, and yet you can still hear the kids playing at eleven o’ clock at night: And how we can do absolutely nothing to help.

I’ve been trying for a while now to coordinate with other organizations, and have been rejected by every single one of them. They do not want my writing. They do not want me to coordinate with them in any way. Just today I wrote a letter to an organization I tried before, detailing that I’m still interested in writing pieces about homelessness in Utah, and while I am not prescient and this is not conclusive by any means, I am expecting a cold rejection letter, a bureaucratic stamp of disapproval.

But The Legacy Initiative has welcomed me with open arms. Why is this so crucial for me to mention? Why is this a milestone, a turning point in my life? Why is it so important to me?

Because I realized upon watching the documentary that I am exactly where I need to be, and that there are people who care out there who seem to share my vision, and such a realization is enough to make me cry, but in a kind of celebratory surrender to the will of the universe: I spent years looking for a way to get involved with the vulnerable population of the homeless, and failed time and time again, getting the door slammed shut in my face time and time again, and verging on the point of complete and utter despair and desperation. Upon watching the documentary, however, I saw something in myself that I didn’t think existed anymore, if it ever at all existed. I saw something that I thought was lost. I saw someone who was carefree. I saw someone who was happy. I saw someone who was grateful. I saw someone who was innocent. I thought such traits were lost, but it’s clear in the documentary that I am in my element as I participate in the outreach. I’m at home. I’m content. I have finally found something that, at least for the time being, works. I have found a place where my goals and ambitions are welcomed.

I have found a place where I can finally make a difference.

I wouldn’t have felt this way if I hadn’t seen the documentary. I have a cold and disassociated self-image, and often see myself as a means to an end, rather than an end unto himself. I generally think that I make things worse, and share the Sartrean existentialist viewpoint that all people are isolated beings, leading to alienation and loneliness. And I must make it clear that I do indeed think that I make things worse rather than better, despite my efforts to the contrary.

Why am I writing this self-reflective piece? Who cares, right? Why don’t I just let the documentary tell the story, for instance, or let others tell the story? Why do I need to explicate an experience that has already taken place and explicate reflectively my take on a documentary? In all honesty, I don’t know if I can say. Just that I see rare glimmers of what it means to be a hero, and I’m just trying to hold onto that with my life, for as long as I can, before it disappears completely. I see that in the people at The Legacy Initiative, and such a trait that I thought was amputated from my essence, seems to be intact, even if only seen in small glimmers here and there, making it seem like a mirage, simply illusory and ephemeral.

What do I mean by what it means to be a hero? I mean truly letting yourself go. I cannot speak for Travis and his crew, but when it comes to me, I have seen something in the documentary that I thought was gone: The ability for me to be who I am, even if it in turn makes me vulnerable and weak. That to me is what it takes to be a hero: To be authentic despite what happens. I thought in all honesty that I wasn’t authentic, that I was a flake and a fraud (and in many ways, I still think that), but there are moments where I’m Superman deeply touched by kryptonite: his weakness. That to me is what I’m getting at, and what it means to be a hero. Why do we need to put on the tough guy act all the time, as if we’re immortal? Why do we, indeed, need to make ourselves out to be Nietzsche’s Übermensch? Sometimes, what it means to be a hero, is to let your guard down. To, remove the mask. I am slowly doing that. I saw that in the documentary, anyway: I just was.

I hope I can do that more in the future. It is a deeply held wish of mine, a secret I obsess over. I dream of being authentic, of being: Of being real.

I don’t need to be Superman or Batman or Spiderman or Ironman. I just need to be: Something I greatly desire and greatly need.

And I hope that in the future, others allow that out of me. Because, I just want to serve, and be a guardian (very romanticized notion, but …), without all of the moral baggage and ideological deadlocks and inflated egotisms. No, this piece doesn’t have much to do with the homeless (such as philosophizing about homelessness or brainstorming solutions or presenting narratives of the homeless), but it deals with why this issue is important to me, and why I believe it should be important to other people. I am not Nietzsche’s Overman, I just am, in all of the vulnerability that entails, and means.

I see that in others.

I hope to continue seeing it.

Maybe all of this sounds counterintuitive, but I think we know that we feel proudest when we see the hero in the movie remove their mask, and take the blows that await them, in full confidence that they’ll make it. And that is what I hope to continue to do, in rare glimmers, in rare moments, because that to me is authentic and needed.

To live otherwise, and I’ll give into the tired clichés that I must aspire to be a member on the Avengers team … and if you know me at all, you know I don’t like clichéd ideals.


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