Decades after my first encounters with them, a couple of my childhood heroes have continued to lift my spirit and entertain my soul. These two people contributed, at least in some small way, to forming my belief system and maybe even my personality. Who are they?
Stan Lee and Soupy Sales.
Surprised? I'm serious.
Stan Lee, as you may know, is the co-creator of such beloved comic-book characters as Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Thor, and Daredevil. As a kid, I was enamored with Lee's comic books and their senses-shattering tales of derring-do and do-gooding.
Like most preadolescents, I especially identified with born loser Peter Parker, the teen bitten by a radioactive spider who donned blue-and-red spider-webbed tights to dole out justice and protect humankind from all sorts of evildoers.
Why? Because his late uncle taught him that "with great power comes great responsibility." In other words, we've all been given gifts, and we should use them for the good of others.
At the same time, the late, great Soupy Sales was one of my childhood idols because I found him quirkily hilarious. Plus, he was from my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia -- a local hero who made good. I attended the same high school and college (Marshall University) that Soupy did.
When his New York-based daily kids' program aired regularly in Huntington, I would make a beeline home from school to catch it and laugh myself silly watching White Fang and Black Tooth, the wacky door-to-door salesmen, and so many other characters interact with Soupy, who always seemed to let us in on the gag with a warm wink.
Some years ago, my two heroes seemed to be in collusion to make me think about something serious. I have been fortunate to meet and correspond with Stan Lee in recent years, and he has been most gracious and encouraging with me -- as he always has been with everyone, apparently.
After I sent him a copy of a devotional journal I wrote for youth tracing the life of Christ, Stan emailed back a hearty thank you note. And he added:
In your card you wrote, "Our faiths may differ, but -- " I beg to disagree. I think our faiths are similar -- it's merely our religions that may differ. I have faith in the inherent goodness of man and I'm sure you feel the same. ... I have the greatest respect for any discipline that preaches kindness and charity and love for one's fellow man. Most important of all, to me -- "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you" is the greatest phrase ever written. If everyone followed that creed, this world would be a paradise.
The very next day, I happened to be reading Soupy Sales's autobiography, Soupy Sez! My Life and Zany Times, and I stumbled upon this passage: "Throughout my career, I've tried to be as generous and kind as I possibly could to everyone. In fact -- I know this sounds corny -- but it's the truth; my motto is, was, and always will be, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"
Reading that well-known Golden Rule twice in two days from my two childhood heroes had a major impact on me. Both of them have been "good guys" in every sense of the word over the years, and now I understood why.
I knew the quotation well -- it's from Christ's Sermon on the Mount. The NRSV puts it thus: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12).
It's Jesus' summary of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Of course, just about every religion on earth reflects this concept. But few people have exemplified the Golden Rule as Jesus himself did.
The Golden Rule is not about our expectations regarding how others are to treat us. Or about waiting to see how we're treated before we do anything. It has nothing to do with "an eye for an eye" or "what goes around comes around."
Rather, the Golden Rule starts with each of us taking proactive steps to treat others as we'd like to be treated. It's taking the responsibility to do good for others, regardless of what they do for you, if anything.
What if we actually did that? What if we looked for opportunities to treat others with kindness and self-sacrifice? What if we went out of our way to do something positive and helpful for someone in need?
Our culture is so self-focused that such behavior may seem unhealthy, codependent, or wishy-washy. In some cases it might be. But I think it takes an unusual amount of courage and strength of character to undertake.
Of course, none of us has super powers. But if we put into practice even the most basic elements of faith, particularly with a sense of humor and good will, we can experience a bit of paradise on this cold, hard earth.
It's within your power. And remember, with great power comes great responsibility.