“Great heroes,” says Peter Beagle, “need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed.”  I received a deep lesson in this truth last week when Community Living London asked me to participate in their “Night of Heroes” event.  It involved walking down a fashion runway with someone who uses the remarkable services of Community Living, an organization dedicated to supporting people with intellectual disabilities and their families.  Truthfully, I grow increasingly shy at such public events, sometimes painfully so, but how can you say “no” to such an organization?

Few understand until they attend the event that the true heroes of the evening are those accompanying the well-known Londoners, those who have found the courage, compassion and endurance to continue on despite so many challenges thrust before and within them.  The idea of the evening is to get the audience to look past the more notable figures to those who, in so many ways, have displayed the most remarkable courage in the face of ominous odds.

My partner was Ina.  I only met her the week previous.  She stood quietly against the wall when she entered the room, her shyness finding a kind of resonance with my own.  Approaching her, I was delighted to see that she didn’t have any idea of who I was.  We shared some pizza together and learned a bit more about one another.  Ina had to endure the death of her father and mother when she was only 18 and almost immediately was brought to Community Living London for help.  She told me of how difficult that transition had been at the time but also of how the good people of Community Living had assisted her over the 30 years since.  She humbly informed me of how she volunteered her time at a local library and how she enjoyed her work.

It is easy to overlook the severe challenges average people with disabilities face.  And yet for those who have any depth of insight it becomes clear that “average” is a term totally unsuitable to such individuals. After spending 30 minutes with Ina the words of writer Peter Kreeft flooded into my mind:

Our culture has filled our heads but emptied our hearts, stuffed our wallets but starved our wonder. It has fed our thirst for facts but not for meaning or mystery. It produces ‘nice’ people, not heroes.

Those like Ina can’t afford these luxuries that create such superficialities; they must summon up all their energies to just get up in the mornings, meet the day with a sense of inner confidence, interact with others of similar challenges, and likely know they are being assessed by individuals who have no idea of the deeper wells of courage that flow inside of them.  But that’s just the thing about Community Living London – it makes no such judgments but instead discerns the marvelous internal natures of Ina and others, seeking to draw them out into becoming fully functional citizens.

Canadians are a good-hearted people, but occasionally we can form external prejudices just like anyone.  We can quietly acquiesce in an attitude of anonymity and accept a kind of conspiracy of silence when confronted by such realities.  Yet it is exactly in such an environment that the marvelous courage of such individuals breaks that code of silence, reminding us of the greater truth that every person has the human depth and potential to rise above their circumstances and provide a clear example of the triumph of the human spirit.

This is what makes all those enduring people at Community Living such clear examples to us all: they are heroes, not because of what they couldn’t do, but what they actually overcame and accomplished.  But it goes further.  Meeting Ina reminded me of how far I have to go to achieve her level of endurance, discipline and trust.  I have taken life on its terms and have sought to make something meaningful of it. Ina, on the other hand, had some significant challenges to deal with and yet developed a spirit greater than mine.  Seen in such a light, she is my better, and I grew quickly humbled by what she had done with her years.

As you’ll see in this video, we walked down the catwalk together and the crowd was left in no doubt as to whom the true hero was in those few minutes.  She looked beautiful and, just like me, had to overcome her nervousness.  When we arrived at the end of the runway, I asked if she would dance with me and drew her closer.  She moved into me in a kind of trust that humbled my own spirit.  For a few brief seconds I actually held a woman of remarkable grace.  I bowed to her because I understood that without Ina – a legitimate  hero – people like me will never know how far we can go, what we are capable of.

Herein lies an eternal truth:  Each time we lose faith in humanity we end up betraying some kind of hero like Ina, who struggled so much to show us what the human spirit is capable of.  In an age jaundiced by politics, economics, and materialism, Ina reminds us that there is a better way to live – one that requires the trust and assistance of others to help us become fully human.