If I asked you who your heroes were growing up, chances are the answers would include some percentage of who you dressed up as for Halloween. They have a way of being colorful and memorable, but they’re usually not the most important characters in our stories.
When I was six, we got a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. My grandparents wrapped the games in aluminum foil instead of wrapping paper (an option I still consider every December), but one game literally caught your eye above all others: The Legend of Zelda, in a shiny gold box.
Zelda was (and is), above all else, a challenge. Unlike the repetition of Pac-Man or the linear progression of Super Mario Bros., Zelda immediately placed you in an open world with no directions or guidance:
The game begins by giving you choices and not telling you which is the “right” one. You can go east, west, or north. Or you can enter that black cave, where an old man will advise you to take a sword.
And so off you go, mashing the A button to swing that sword through a massive world; I know now it’s 128 different screens on the overworld plus nine dungeons underground and dozens of other secrets. But playing it for the first time as a child, it just seemed limitless.
Limitless, and difficult. I have no idea how long it would’ve taken six year old me to finish it by myself – probably until I was eight or nine year old me – but I had my dad playing alongside me.
I think about this a lot these days, both because my wife and I are expecting our first child, and because when my dad was helping six year old me tackle Zelda, he was 35 year old him – the same age I am now.
Zelda isn’t the name of character you control; she’s the princess, it’s her legend. The sword-swinging character at your fingertips is named Link. But he is a silent protagonist, the first of many to follow in video games, designed to make you believe that you, the player, are the real main character. You are the hero.
And heroes, as Donald Miller points out, always need guides:
Almost every hero I studied meets a guide who has “been there and done that” and can help them accomplish their obligatory task. Heroes do not have the knowledge, skill, or confidence to make it on their own. For centuries storytellers have used “the guide” character to help the hero along. Haymitch gives Katniss a plan, Yoda teaches Luke to use the force. So, if you want to be a hero, find a few guides to help you out, otherwise you’re doomed.
So if a guide makes a good hero, what makes a good guide?
In the Old Testament, a young David becomes king through an anointing by the prophet Samuel. The prophet comes to David’s father’s house, looks upon David’s oldest brother, and assumes God will choose the firstborn. But God famously responds:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 (NRSV)
In Hebrew, there’s an interesting choice of words here: Samuel looks, but God sees.
In this new spirit, Samuel puts his hands on David and makes him king, becoming an initial guide to one of the great heroes of the faith (and David will become a man who could have used another guide or two later in his life).
We’re more prone to ask about our heroes, but the better question is, who were/are our guides? Who put their hands on our shoulders and told us we could do it? Who saw us?
Heroes, like silent protagonists, tend to be people we hope to emulate. As a child I wanted to be Larry Bird because I played basketball and kind of looked like him (the first time I played in our weekly game at church in Athens in 2012, the college students started calling me Chris Kaman, an impressively steep fall from my childhood hero). Even as an adult, my heroes have tended to be people who communicate aspects of faith really well, people I hope to be like.
But we interact far more often with our guides. Some would argue it’s best to never meet your heroes. But our guides have a flesh-and-blood impact on our lives.
We look to our heroes. But our guides see us.
We surveyed our church and asked about their heroes, both as children and today. Thirty-five percent named a fictional character. Forty-seven percent named a religious figure (it’s church; “Jesus” is always a reliable answer). But the leading category was a family member: 60% of all responses included someone in their household. And I think these heroes are actually really good guides in disguise.
Maddi, a seventh grader, said her hero when she was younger was Walt Disney, but now it’s her parents: “Walt Disney created Disney, but it is in my parents, not a Disney movie, that I have seen love’s magic in its truest form.”
I think part of being a good guide is helping people choose good heroes. And when we do it really well, we’ll get this kind of truth reflected back to us.
With the baby on the way I’ve found myself internally working through the questions I assume everyone has at this point about what kind of father I’ll be and all the implications therein. But there is, for me, some healthy burden-lifting in believing less that I need to be my son’s hero and more that I can be a good guide. My own parents were (and are) quite good in this way: they let me dress up as Larry Bird on Halloween, helped me learn patience and problem solving through Zelda, and gave me the freedom to choose good heroes while putting their hands around me and helping me believe I could be one in my own story.
There is power in believing God sees us. Having it echoed to us by our guides only amplifies what that belief can mean. And in turn, that belief encourages us to have eyes not just to look, but see: in our families, our workplaces, our communities the people for whom a God who sees might be good news. The people who might have a handful of heroes, but could really use a guide.