Americans love to throw around the term “hero.” But what is a hero? We tend not only to ascribe the word to illiterate athletes, but to people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as well.

An extreme example of the latter would be the infamous Iran-hostage “crisis” that ended after 444 days on January 20, 1981. With Kim Jong Il’s best friend, Jimmy Carter, spending more than a year trying to remove his thumb from his left nostril, Iran’s version of Crazy Guggenheim – Ayatollah Khomeini – had things pretty much his way.

But once Ronald Reagan was elected president, Krazy Khomeini started envisioning a nuclear cloud over Iran for the next 400 years. Which, in turn, motivated him to come to his senses and release the hostages. Like every other civilized person, I was happy for both the hostages and their families.

Nevertheless, when the media started portraying them as heroes and New York held a tickertape parade for them, I was baffled. You happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and you’re hailed as a hero? I think a little perspective is called for. To me, a hero is someone who accomplishes extraordinary feats under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, such as the firefighters who marched into the World Trade Center towers in an attempt to save lives while everyone else was scurrying to get out.

In this regard, I have great admiration and respect for Jessica Lynch, the American soldier who was captured and held prisoner in Iraq, and was subsequently rescued in a daring raid by U.S. troops. My admiration and respect are a result of her making it clear to a national television audience that she was not, in fact, a hero.

Despite the way she was depicted by The New York Times and other major publications, she explained, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, that there was no truth to any of those stories. In fact, Lynch said that not only did she not do any fighting, she was hurt so badly that she didn’t even remember what happened to her. When Sawyer asked why she would volunteer such information, she explained that she could not live with herself if she allowed people to believe that she fought heroically when she had not.

So though Lynch is not a hero, her refreshing honesty and humility command enormous respect, especially in this day and age of declining Western values.

Thinking back to the Iran hostage situation reminds me of two genuine heroes – 13-year-old Mattie Stepanek, who succumbed to a severe case of muscular dystrophy, and Christopher Reeve, who became a quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident and passed away as a result of complications from an infection.

At the age of 10, Mattie Stepanek wrote Heartsongs, a book of poetry that became a New York Times #1 best-seller. He followed that remarkable feat with four more books of poetry, two of which also became best-sellers. He was a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and Larry King Live. His messages were always upbeat, positive, and inspiring. Few adults have ever spoken with more wisdom and deep insight into life than Mattie.

Christopher Reeve was beyond amazing. Though he had to struggle just to breathe, he found the time, energy, and determination not only to continue acting but also to direct a film, take an active role in fighting for stem-cell research, testify before Congress, and appear on virtually every major television talk show.

Other than recognizing these two giants of courage as true heroes, what else can we learn from their lives?

• Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

It seems somewhat ironic that the joint subjects of this article are a scrawny 13-year-old kid and Superman. But after a lifetime of observation, it’s become clear to me that size, physical strength, skin color, gender, and ethnicity, among other things, are of little significance compared to a will to succeed.

• Though human beings, through the gift of free will coupled with action, are able to exercise a great deal of control over their destinies, the inevitable will always be one of man’s greatest nemeses.

The National Safety Council says that a fatal accident occurs every five minutes in the United States, and a disabling injury occurs every two seconds. There is no question that we have the capacity to stack the odds in our favor when it comes to leading longer, healthier lives. Yet, in a head-to-head battle, we are no match for the inevitable. This, however, does not mean that you should become a fatalist and stop trying. That would be irrational on its face.

What it does mean is that you should always keep in mind that there’s an offsetting positive to every negative, and the offsetting positive to the inevitable is that it teaches the wise person humility. Do everything possible to stack the odds in your favor. Work hard at success in all areas of your life, but make certain you don’t become so enamored with yourself that you start believing you’re omnipotent, immortal, or both.

Remember, you’re always just one bad break away from becoming a quadriplegic, getting a terminal disease, or suffering a fatal accident.

• Relativity.

It may sound trite, but you really should be grateful when you wake up every morning, especially if you have been blessed with good health.

Given that a handicap is defined as anything that makes achievement more difficult, each of us is burdened with many handicaps. Not necessarily physical handicaps, but handicaps just the same. Broken marriages, financial problems, lack of a track record – the list of factors that can make achievement more difficult is infinite.

Brooding over a handicap, whatever it may be, is a surefire way to increase its negative impact on your life. You brood, you lose. Whenever you feel as though the temptation to feel sorry for yourself is taking control of your emotions, refocus your thoughts on genuine heroes like Mattie Stepanek and Christopher Reeve.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Heroes are great teachers. They lead by example. All that is required is that you be ready to learn.

[Ed. Note: For a treasure chest of proven ideas, strategies, and techniques for increasing your income many times over, be sure to sign up for his Voice of Sanity e-letter.]

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Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is a New York Times #1 bestselling author and host of the highly acclaimed Liberty Education Interview Series, which features interviews with top political, economic, and social leaders. He has appeared on Fox News, Fox Business, The Tonight Show, Today, The Dennis Miller Show, Good Morning America, The Lars Larson Show, ABC Nightline, and The Charlie Rose Show, and has been the subject of feature articles in such major publications as Time, People, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Barron’s, and The New York Times.