Be an Everyday Hero

With the passing of Senator John McCain this weekend, the world mourns a true American hero. McCain was not only a war hero; he was one of the most respected legislators of our time.

The senator from Arizona will be remembered for his patriotism, his courage, and his willingness (on occasion) to cross party lines. In an era of political turmoil and negativism, he will also be remembered for his attempts to unify America.

After returning to the Senate in July 2017 following brain surgery, McCain pleaded for an end to rabid bipartisanship. “Our system doesn’t depend on nobility,” he said from the Senate floor. “It accounts for our imperfections and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’”

And I—like so many of us—will always remember McCain’s defiant “thumbs-down” a month later when he stood up to his party and voted against GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

But you don’t need to be a naval bomber pilot, prisoner of war, and leader in the Senate—or any kind of caped crusader— to be a hero. We mere mortals have that opportunity each and every day.

Here are five things that you can do to be a hero:

  1. Drop your ego.Your ego is formed from your habits and conditioning. Surrender your need for control and your desire to be right. Get rid of your need to win; a constant focus on winning precludes you from reflecting on your actions. Stop complaining; that only keeps you locked in negativity and pushes you away from a true connectedness with others. Let go of unnecessary confrontations; the act of letting go leads to peace of mind and greater opportunities. Apologize when you know you have harmed or offended anyone, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and make amends when necessary.
  2. Practice forgiveness. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with a person who upset or hurt you, nor does it condone the actions of another. Forgiveness simply means a release of blame. By forgiving, you gain a new perspective on the events that have occurred and your reaction to them. The real gift of forgiveness is the peace and understanding that comes from letting go of the feelings, thoughts, and physical symptoms from which you have been suffering.
  3. Focus on the good in life.Being a hero is not just about solving all of the problems in the world, such as poverty and terrorism. It’s about working to promote the good in the world, including kindness and gratitude and love. Be “pro-” instead of “anti-.” For example, be pro-peace instead of antiwar. Many of us are obsessed with watching or reading the news, which makes it hard to focus on the good. Consider limiting your exposure to issues in the media.
  4. Be grateful. Focus your attention to those people, places, or things for which you are grateful. People who regularly practice gratitude—by taking time to notice and reflect upon and record the things they’re grateful for each day—experience more positive feelings, feel more compassion and kindness, and even sleep better.
  5. Be like your heroes. Try this exercise, which I learned from Ayse Birsel, creator of Design the Life You Love. Make a list of your heroes and write down next to their names why they are your heroes. Then cross out their names and put in your own name. To the degree possible, reflect on what you have written and integrate those traits into your leadership style. Begin now. You’ll be amazed.

As a living legacy to John McCain, perhaps we can each work a little bit each day to become Everyday Heroes. And, if we do so, the unity that Mr. McCain held so near to his heart—but which sometimes seems so far away in today’s world—may indeed become a reality.

As a pediatric oncologist, a drug developer who has served cancer patients for nearly 25 years, and a cancer survivor myself, I must also acknowledge the heroism of John McCain as he met this final chapter of his life. McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma in July 2017 after surgery to remove a blood clot above his left eye. Glioblastoma is a very difficult-to-treat brain cancer; most patients succumb to their disease—even with treatment—in 13-15 months following diagnosis. Only about 10% of patients live 5 or more years. McCain knew these facts.

The senator once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity to act despite our fears.” Until his final moments, McCain acted stoically and with courage. He was a man who lived and died with conviction and on his own terms. Let us all live by his example.