A version of these remarks were delivered on Friday, October 19, 2018, for the annual Founders Day lecture at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas.
I believe in heroes and you should too. Here’s the story of one.
On January 2, 2007, about midday, Wesley James Autrey, a 50-year-old construction worker was waiting for a train at a subway station in Manhattan with his two young daughters. They were 4 and 6 at the time.
Standing on the platform, he watched as another man (Cameron Hollopeter, a 20-year-old, 6-foot, 180-pound film student) had a seizure, collapse, and then fall next to the tracks below. As Hollopeter lay aside the tracks, Autrey looked and saw the lights of the oncoming train, speeding toward Hollopeter, told his two young daughters to stay back with a nearby woman, and jumped onto the tracks. When Autrey got down, he realized he didn’t have time to get Hollopeter up and off the tracks – he was too heavy to lift the body up from the ground – and besides, the platform was too high up – and Autrey could hear his daughters screaming, the noise from the train, and amid all that, he said to himself: “I can do this.”
The train was coming, closer, and closer, 50 feet, 40 feet, 30…and so, instead of jumping up and leaving Hollopeter – Autrey did what he could to protect Hollopeter – Autrey held him down, covered him, smushed him flat, in a drainage area next to the track of the oncoming train.
And the train’s still coming – now 20 feet, 10 feet away – Autrey, on top of Hollopeter braced himself as the train’s conductor slammed on the brakes – but with so much momentum, the train couldn’t stop in time and so the train passed over Autrey and Hollopeter – the first car hit the hat on Autrey’s head. Four or five more cars passed over them by the time the brakes kicked in – but they both survived.
“I can do this.” There’s so much packed into those four words – and I’ll be talking a lot about them today – because if you want to save a life, step one is believing you can.
And I also want you to know, that true story of real heroism matters a whole lot to me, personally, because Autrey left his two daughters to jump onto the tracks. Like him, I have two daughters, and they’re almost exactly the same age as his were when he did that. I’ve thought so much about what it would take for me to make that leap knowing what I’d be leaving behind. It’s daunting.
Just as it’s daunting to speak to all of you here today. To the Members of the Board of Trustees that are here, distinguished faculty and staff, students and friends of the College – thank you so much for being here and welcoming me so warmly. Most of all I owe a great debt of gratitude to President Joey King and his chief of staff, Ms. Clarinda Foote, for their kindness, thoroughness, and generousness for bringing me here today.
When President King invited me to speak, I jumped at the chance to get back in front of young people with so much potential. To teach again, even if it is just for a little while.
But then I did some research – what do you say at something like this? I started near in time and place, with Dr. Brian Mitchell’s great Founders Day address from one year ago, and then I even went further back and farther afield, 159 years back, to be precise – to read the great champion of universal education – Horace Mann – his Baccalaureate Address to the students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The very first words of his speech were to tell those college students to “Live for others,” and he ended by advising them to “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Now, I’m told he spoke for several hours, collapsed shortly after the speech and died a few weeks later. The moral of that story is pretty obvious: speaking at colleges can be deadly. Pretty risky stuff.
Especially here, you know I just watched the super scary and violent second season of Ozarkon Netflix, and it made me think twice about even getting this close to the Ozarks…just saying.
But, seriously, I recognize just how important and unique an opportunity like this is. A chance to read,think, and write about a subject of my own choosing – and really let rip. Yes, of course, I’m nervous, sweaty, and red-in-the-face about delivering the Founders Day lecture here at Lyon, but in the end, I realize that, like Autrey: “I can do this.”
And in the end, I chose a subject that I thought would be of value to you, but also, someday, to my own daughters when they sit in your chairs and walk in your shoes.
I took inspiration from Horace Mann’s advice, to “live for others,” in part because I believe Mann’s efforts very likely shaped Lyon College, which itself was born in 1872, not long after Mann passed away.
And so today I’ve chosen to go straight at the heart of higher education and your purpose in spending four years here at Lyon College:
Who should you aim to be in life? and How can you get to be that person?
Perhaps most important, yet underappreciated, is how your school’s motto (“Perseverance conquers all, God willing.”) can help you get there. Most of us think of mottos as empty slogans to dismiss – but not this one. I’ll explain why, in a bit.
It’s been said that every story is one of self-discovery, from Luke Skywalker to Odysseus to Captain America, and being a college student is no different. You’re figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and who you can be. Unfortunately, sometimes I know you can get weighed down by your parent’s expectations, your mentor’s opinions, and your friend’s subtle influences.
So I’m here to be another one of those voices – to make my own case, hopefully one that you’ll adopt in full or in part, and it may just deviate from what you’d expect.
Yes, as you know, I am an active duty military officer. I’ve served in uniform over half my life, in fact, and because of that, most of what you’ll hear today is based on my military experiences. But don’t be confused by the camouflage – I’m here, deliberately out of uniform – because this lecture isn’t about the Army. Today, I’m on leave – I do not represent the Army, West Point, or any other US government organization. Today, I’m Dr. Matt Cavanaugh, talking to you. But we’re friends now. You can call me “Matt.”
What I have to say today is applicable to anyone. Just because I’ll mention a battlefield or two doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground. Life is full of battles and wars, even if they are, thankfully, much less violent than actual combat.
Let’s start at the start – with who you should aim to be. A hero.
Let’s let that sink in for a moment. Yes, I said a hero. And I know that several of you are thinking that’s crazy. No way. Or, ‘that’s lame.’ Or even ‘who do you think you are to tell me to be a hero?’ [I’ll say, right now for the record, I don’t see myself as a hero and I never will – but it is something I strive to be every day.]
I suspect that with the rise of the internet and the box-office success of the Marvel movies, there has been a growth in the belief in “superheroes.” But superheroes are movie heroes, on-screen heroes, they have a great source of power, maybe they can fly, or they’re fast, or they heal like Wolverine. They typically have a single personal weakness, a psychological challenge maybe, but they’re supernatural. Beyond human. And too often – that’s the only kind of hero we think exists.
At the same time, we have come to believe in villains – that real villains walk among us. We don’t trust other people like we used to, in part because the constant barrage of ‘if it bleeds it leads’ news keeps us perpetually informed of every single bad thing that happens in the world.
And so – we believe in real villains but think heroes exist only in movies.
They don’t. I’m here to tell you that heroes are real. And you know some.
But real heroes are different from movie superheroes. Heroes can’t fly. (And when they do, it’s usually coach, not first class). Heroes make mistakes. Heroes struggle. Heroes cry. Heroes drive Camrys and shop at Costco. And some of them are willing to stay well after class to make sure you understand something difficult for the next day’s test.
But – and this is the important part – heroes serve others – and sometimes, heroes are willing to give everything for others and causes greater than themselves.
Charles Darwin was confused by heroes. He couldn’t make sense of them. His findings on life and evolution boiled down to a simple biological imperative: we were all put on the planet to procreate. To make babies, little genetic copies of ourselves.
As the writer Chris McDougall put it, “From that perspective, heroism makes no sense. Why risk the grave for someone else if there’s no guarantee of a biological payoff? Dying for your own kids: smart. Dying for a rival’s? Genetic suicide.” Or, more succinctly: “Selfish Bastard’s kids would thrive and multiply, while Hero Dad’s kids would eventually follow their father’s example and sacrifice themselves into extinction.” [Note: This quote, and a significant portion of the ideas that follow, come from Christopher McDougall’s excellent book, Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, pages 26-42, and 204.]
And as Darwin himself put it: “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”
In addition to Darwin, the world’s wealthiest man of a century ago – Andrew Carnegie – sought to understand society’s heroes as well. He set up a fund (the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, in 1904), to research and reward true civilian heroes. Mr. Wesley Autrey, who I described a few minutes ago – earned that Carnegie prize for heroism – which is defined as a civilian who voluntary leaves a point of safety to risk their own life to an extraordinary degree, to save or attempt to save life of another human.
The Carnegie Hero Fund and Trust still, to this day, seeks out those civilian heroes and catalogs their stories to better understand heroism.
More recently, the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, in his book Behave, explored heroism in another way. He looked into research that seems to rebut the notion that empathy drives heroic acts. Instead, Sapolsky wrote about research which shows that most of the time, when humans empathize with another person’s pain – people turn away. From this, Sapolsky reasons that emotional detachment is actually what drives people to act heroically.
But I, among others, think Darwin, Carnegie, and Sapolsky are barking up the wrong bush. They wondered why someone is a hero – they searched for the deep causal trigger – when they should have been looking into how these heroes did what they did (and do what they do).
And it turns out, the Greeks had it figured out centuries before any of them. Chris McDougall’s great book, Natural Born Heroes, explains this quite well.
The Ancient Greeks “put heroes at the center” of their stories and their knowledge and, tellingly, when they picked a word to mean “hero,” they selected a term that roughly translates to “protector.” Not a word for “Big Muscle Guy,” or “Schwarzenegger” or “Rambo” – but “protector.”
The Greeks believed that heroism wasn’t some lucky genetic fluke, or a gift from some deity – it was something that anyone could master.
As McDougall wrote, “What tips [a hero] toward greatness is a sidekick, a human connection who helps [a hero] turn on the spigot of the power of compassion. Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.”
Achilles had Patrocles. Hercules had Theseus. Today, Superman has Jimmy Olson (or Lois), and Batman has Robin, and so on, and so on.
To protect another means being strong enough for two – to save yourself and another. And there’s an ironic contradiction there – that you are at your most powerful when you are protecting the powerless.
But the Greeks didn’t only talk about power and strength. They also noted that great feats of heroism sometimes comes in surprising packages. Take Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse. Aesop was a slave and storyteller that lived in ancient Greece a little over 2500 years ago.
I’d say “stop me if you’ve heard this one,” but too many of you would stop me – so I’ll just retell the story one more time. A mouse accidentally wakes a lion, and the lion goes to eat the mouse – but the mouse begs forgiveness and reminds the lion that to eat a mouse would bring the lion no honor. The lion agrees and lets the mouse go. Later, the lion is trapped in a hunter’s net and howls and roars as he knows he’s about to be killed. The mouse hears the lion’s calls, remembers the lion’s benevolent choice – and the mouse chews through the rope to set the lion free.
Heroes don’t always look like we think.
Sometimes, they look like a cast-off kid at the edge of a galaxy far, far away. Sometimes they look like Luke Skywalker (or, if you prefer, Rey). George Lucas created Star Wars based on the writings of the mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell – who looked across the globe and found a series of myths universally common around the world. He called it the “hero’s journey.”
Campbell described the hero overcomes the “dark passions” and the selfish “irrational savage” inside to serve “something bigger than oneself” and sometimes, a hero “performs a courageous act in battle or saves a life.”
Across many peoples and cultures, Campbell kept finding the same cycle – or journey: the call to adventure, assistance from a mentor, departure to a special world, trials there, approaching danger (the apprehension – “the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” – facing your fears), the crisis, getting the treasure, achieving the result, returning to the ordinary world, a new life, and resolution.
I suspect there’s a reason Campbell found that universal journey in so many places and peoples – because we all go through cycles like that all the time. Normal life is disrupted by something that calls us to do something we fear – we get help from a mentor – we approach that which we are afraid of (for example, traveling way close to the Ozarks to speak at a college) – pushing past that fear to survive and succeed – and then heading home to where the grass is green, the wine is red, and the hugs are plentiful.
So, getting back to the Greeks, who had this hero stuff nailed down pretty well – how do we do it? How do we prepare ourselves to be a hero?
A great hint comes from the historian Will Durant’s paraphrasing of Aristotle, who pointed out that: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”
And so I want tell you three short stories, from my own life, about how I think you might go about forming habits that matter.
I cried my first night at college. I went to West Point in New York, and it felt like stepping off a cliff into an abyss where I wasn’t worth anything. They bring you into the football stadium when you first show up, and I had traveled there alone from home in Minnesota while it seemed like all the other new cadets around me had brought huge groups of their families. This guy next to me was from New Jersey, so they drove up to drop him off, and when the man wearing green announced: “You now have 90 seconds to say goodbye to your friends and family, and then you must make your way down to the tunnel,” the guy next to me had so many people to hug that he couldn’t conceivably hug all of them, and I seriously thought about asking for a hug from a spare grandma or aunt or heck, I’d have even taken the crazy uncle. Instead, I just gave up on my final 90 seconds of freedom and walked down to the tunnel…I was the first one there. I was alone.
And so, after they shaved my head and gave me this giant blue bag of uniforms, and I’d been yelled at all day because I didn’t do anything right – I went back to my room and I cried. Later that week, in my first phone call home, I begged my parents to call another school to let me in as a transfer student.
But in that huge bag – which I received on June 28, 1998 – I had a pair of black leather shoes. Here they are. I was your age when I got them, and, actually, they’re probably older than about half of you.
I shined them every day, sometimes several times a day. I shined them with other cadets. I shined them alone. And after some time, a strong base of shine developed, so that when they got scuffed, it was a little easier to polish them back up. I noticed that if I committed to a few minutes of shining each day, instead of the “accordion method” – leaving them alone for a few weeks at a time (only to rush to catch up just before an inspection) – that life was much easier.
It was then that I learned the underappreciated value of shining your shoes, and, correspondingly, the importance of discipline and maintenance.
You’ve got to figure out what things matter in your life and turn them from occasional activities to routine habits.
And shoes seem pretty important to me. They’re foundational, really, they are at our very foundation, our base, our connection with the ground, they propel us, they support us, and they literally are where our rubber meets the road.
Any expertise in any subject that matters in any walk of life – depends on disciplined repetition. Success is much less about momentary brilliance than habitual grit. Your health, wealth, and wisdom depend on your gritty forbearance.
And maintenance matters too. We seem to have forgotten that in an era when clothes are in one season and garbage-bound the next, but much of our success in life is based on how well we maintain our relationships with others, our things (including digital devices), and ourselves (particularly our emotional and spiritual lives).
Disciplined daily habits provide a protective coat of shine. And besides, when you commit to maintain, you’re not afraid to get scuffed up as much, because you know you can always clean them back up quickly. You can recover.
For me, when I look back, it started in college. That’s when I began shining those shoes and putting one foot in front of the other – and started developing the habits that mattered the most in my life, which gave me the confidence to say, “I can do this.”And so I stayed at West Point.
September 11, 2001 happened in the opening weeks of my senior year of college; from 50 miles north of New York City, we could see the smoke from the wreckage for days. I graduated on June 1, 2002, and President George W. Bush gave a speech at my graduation that all but told us we were going to war.
When I got to Iraq in the spring of 2003, just behind the lead elements pushing into the country, my unit moved just west of Baghdad to Fallujah and Ramadi, which, at the time, were the most violent parts of the country.
Shortly after arrival, a grenade attack wounded 8 in our squadron commander’s security detachment, and so I volunteered to lead the next one. That’s when I really got in the war. That’s when consequences became real and final and I knew that I had to make a daily commitment to being ready. And so I did. I organized our platoon’s schedule. I worked hard to make sure that everyone had some semblance of order before they rode out into war’s chaos. I made sure everyone had time to eat, sleep, and exercise, even if it wasn’t much, it was still something.
And I did it myself too – I created routines and habits that have stuck with me to this day. I still get up every morning, even on weekends, at 4. I make time for the things that matter, and I know that every minute counts.
One day in 2003 – while talking with some locals about information that might lead to nuclear material (which never panned out) – my platoon was hit with small arms fire and bullets pinned us down for cover behind vehicles and buildings. I looked and saw the source of the fire was about a football field away. I waited for the source of the shooting to reload, and then grabbed a driver and that driver and I jumped into a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (slightly smaller than a tank) – and drove that armored vehicle straight at the fire in an effort to protect the platoon from the fire by serving as a battering ram for the bullets. It may never have been verbalized, or even conscious, but I know my daily habits led me to be confident enough to act when I needed to. To say: “I can do this.”
My second tour in 2005, we were in northern Iraq, in a city of 250,000 called Tal Afar. The city was filled with insurgents that were terrorizing the people. So, block by block, during a large operation, we cleared the city. On one all-day combat mission, while I was the unit’s executive officer, I spent the entire day talking on radios on several levels to: squadron headquarters, battery commander, three platoons operating in the area, and helicopter pilots overhead. If you can, imagine six conversations going on at once across multiple communications platforms. (Wait a minute. You’re the iGen, right? You guys probably have six conversations going – while I’m talking – on your phones, right now. So yeah, I think you probably get it.)
Anyway, in the early afternoon, my armored humvee turned into an alley, right into facing an insurgent with a rocket propelled grenade armed and on his shoulder – as soon as I saw him, I hit my gunner’s leg – he was up in the turret on a machine gun and fired and missed, but it was enough to make the insurgent pull his shot and it went right over us. We drove off, safe, but shaken.
Later that night we went back to base after the mission – and I really felt that the unit was successful because we were so rigorous about our schedules and sleep, and our commitment to pre-combat checklists and habitual pre-combat inspections. We were ready and that gave us confidence.
But, when I got back from my second deployment to Iraq, I was way down. There were some big changes in my personal life and, to be honest, I didn’t just feel lost – I was lost.
That’s when I started to run. Every day. That was my new version of ‘shoe shining’, and it led me out of the hole I’d fallen into. It reminded me I was still there and still could be strong and still do things, even if I felt that life had scuffed me up a bit.
And on getting scuffed up – at this point I’ve got to pause and tell you, that trail you’ve got down the hill – that’s no joke. At West Point, there’s a similarly placed trail – but much, much gentler – in fact, it’s so smooth and nice to walk we call it “Flirtation Walk,” because that’s where guys used to take dates to hold hands and stuff. Your trail down there – that’s no joke treacherous – I think when they came up with your motto, they were thinking about hiking that trail (‘yep, we’re gonna need some perseverance if we’re going to get kids make it up that hill’). Seriously – that trail tripped me up this morning – I’m going to leave here with little less blood and a little more Lyon College-soil embedded in my skin.
Anyhow, getting back to the period of my life on return from Iraq – that’s also about when I started to write. My early morning wakeups gave me the time to pursue both of those new daily habits – wake up, write, then run. Honestly, I feel like these habits, these routines, are what have given me the strength to say to so many other things, “I can do this.”
But if there’s one thing I want to make abundantly clear today, it’s that soldiers don’t have a monopoly on service and sacrifice.
Let me tell you the story of Laura Shrake. In 1995, she was 21 and a college student – just like you. One day, while driving through the countryside, she saw a woman being mauled by a 950-pound Jersey bull in a pasture. Laura stopped, jumped out to see if she could help the woman on the ground. The bull had tossed the woman with its horns and she was on the ground and wasn’t moving very much. Laura ran from her car to the fence that held the bull. The fence was electric.
So here Laura had a choice – would she climb the electric fence and face a bull to save a total stranger?
She did. Thousands of volts of electricity hit her as she climbed, and then tumbled, on the other side. By then another person ran up and threw a two-foot piece of pipe over the fence and yelled at Laura to “hit the bull in the face” – which Laura did – and it worked just enough to stun the bull while Laura pulled the woman to her feet and dragged her to, and over, the electric fence.
That’s someone like you. A 21-year old college kid. Just like you. I know, I get it, it’s not likely that you’ll have to leap an electric fence to face a half-ton bull tomorrow, but sometimes that’s what life feels like, that’s what class feels like – giving a speech or taking a test (or maybe even driving really close to the super scary Ozarks to speak at a college…I’m just saying).
You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that, when I wear my uniform, I often hear a distant, direct, “thank you for your service.” It’s always appreciated, but I want to point out that while we often see so clearly the heroism linked to battlefields, we too often miss the heroes here at home.
Think about it. Just recent months or the past year. The civilian volunteer cave divers that found and secured the safety of the 13 boys trapped in that cave in northern Thailand. Or consider the “Spider Man of Paris,” Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian immigrant, who took a mere half a minute to scale four stories and save a child on a ledge in France’s capital city. Because these civilian heroes said to themselves, “I can do this.”
Or the firefighters in the West, where I live, especially farther west in California – who sometimes work 80 hours straight protecting homes and lives. The battalion chief at Cal Fire, who just this past summer told his people: “I wish I could say the cavalry is coming – it’s not.” Sometimes, they are all that stands between our fellow citizens and certain devastation.
It’s hard not to spot the heroism in those that run toward the fire and the flames. They keep the bad from getting worse.
But others, in a quieter, steadier way, also keep us on life’s better path. Their public service is equally meaningful, particularly because they often care for the youngest and oldest among us.
Consider my 7-year-old daughter. She has seizures and has moved four times in the past four years. At times, she can be cripplingly bashful with adults and other kids, and has had some trouble adjusting to school. So we’re infinitely grateful that last year her kindergarten teacher and classroom aides were so exceptional at breaking our little girl out of her shy shell. Or the librarians that patiently support her development by making available thousands of books and dozens of educational programs that nurture her maturing mind. Or the neurologists and nurses that monitor and show genuine concern for her budding brain. Or when the ambulance and paramedics arrive at our house to respond when a seizure strikes.
I couldn’t do my job without the support of this enormous public security and service community. They areheroes to me.
As a military officer, my first duty is to the nation’s defense, even above the needs of my own family. To go even when I don’t want to. That reality is so harsh that it’s sometimes hard to even express. It goes against every human instinct: to leave for long stretches instead of being there for my family as a husband and a father.
Even more so, I couldn’t do what I do without my wife Rachel. Let me just quickly explain what I mean – not in a pie-in-the-sky I-love-my-wife sort of way, but in very concrete terms. One night several months ago, when the dinner plates were empty and she and I were making small talk, Rachel noticed our daughter’s growing seizure signs gripping her body. She calmly told me what to do, where to take her, how to position her, and when to mark the time to provide the inbound EMTs and paramedics what they’d need to know. She took charge in the defense of our daughter no less so than the best I’ve watched on fields with real fire. For that, and so much more, she’s my real hero.
What I’m trying to say is that public gratitude for heroism ought to be more widespread. Yes, some should go to soldiers, but there are heroes literally everywhere you look: cops, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, doctors, TSA professionals, teachers, librarians, parents, and the cornucopia of others that serve our entire American public.
Without them, I couldn’t serve. In that way, there’s a unity in society that transcends any petty smallness that divides us. A mutual dependence on the heroism of our fellow humans. It’s what connects us.
Horace Mann was right, we should “be ashamed to die until [we’ve] won some victory for humanity.” But he didn’t mean all of humanity, all at once. Notice he used the word “some.” (As in, “some victory for humanity.”) I think that was deliberate. Don’t aim to change the entire world – aim to change someone’s entire world. Don’t try to be a hero to everyone – try to be a hero to someone. One other person. Just one.
Like Mr. Autrey, who jumped down to help Mr. Hollopeter.
There’s one more side to that story I want you to know. Every time I hear it, every time I say it, I think about my own daughter and wonder if, someday, should the seizures continue, if she might be the one that falls on the tracks.
Who will be there for her? I probably won’t. And though it’s very unlikely – one of you might. She may be the one lying on the tracks and you may be the only one there to protect her.
Before I go, I need you to make me a promise, and it’s one that I’m ready to reciprocate. A quid pro quo inspired by Mr. Autrey – I’ll continue to be prepared to leave my daughters (and wife) behind for military service if need be – if you promise to jump onto the tracks when the time comes.
And the deal still stands even if it doesn’t exactly go like that. The basic idea is simple: when someone’s in need, we act.
So when you’re bored in class, or distracted, or distraught…remember…just keep shining your shoes. Prepare. Train. Grow to be strong enough for two. Be useful to someone. Horace Mann’s commandment still stands: “live for others.”
Live for others every day with the sure knowledge that someday, someone else will depend on you. Because they will. A friend. Your child. Your student. Your husband. Your mother. Even a stranger. It may be a moment. It may be your life’s work. But someone will need you to be a hero. And you’ll be glad you shined your shoes. You’ll persevere, God-willing, because when the time comes, you’ll be confident enough to say the most powerful four words in the English language: “I can do this.”
And then you will.