You can learn a lot about someone by looking at their heroes. Who we idolize and emulate can show us a lot about who we are, and who we’d like to be. Personally, I have many. Jesus, Socrates, and Thomas Jefferson are three figures from history that I particularly admire, but heroes need not come from history, or even be real people. Spider Man, Batman, and Gandalf are all fictional characters who I consider to be important to me. Some of the most important heroes though, are not just people we admire for their excellent qualities, but people who we identify with. Characters in fiction whose struggles seem to resonate with us and create a sense of connection that goes beyond simple admiration. This post will discuss one such hero of mine from my childhood.
When I was a child, almost all my difficulties and challenges came from interacting with people. I found this confusing, because most things came rather easily to me. Physics, biology, and mathematics were simple tricks when compared to the complexity of getting along with my classmates. I could easily rattle off numerous facts about wars, Presidents, and animals of all kinds, but I couldn’t tell you how to make a friend, or start a conversation. I could understand the political and scientific discussions on the news, but I often didn’t understand my classmates’ use of slang and their kid stuff language. I often felt like I was an alien stranded far from home, trying to understand a world that I didn’t belong in. It is fitting, then, that I found a kindred spirit in perhaps the most appropriate place for a smart geeky science kid, the world of Star Trek.
Many of you are probably thinking I’m referring to Mr. Spock, and that would be wrong. The original series was long since off the air by the time I was old enough to appreciate it. No, the Enterprise I knew was the domain of Captain Picard, Will Riker, Doctor Crusher, Worf, LaForge, Troi, and one of my personal heroes, Lt. Commander Data. For those who don’t know, Data was an android, an artificial life form with a positronic brain who was made by a brilliant scientist to look and act like a human being. Data could read entire books in seconds. He could do complex mathematical calculations in his head without the aid of any computers or instruments. Data could access practically any information imaginable from his own computer memory. However, Data lacked human emotions and this complicated much of his interaction with the other crew. He was unique, different, and out-of-place. He was built to be approximate humanity but could never entirely succeed. I saw something of myself in him. Oh, I certainly couldn’t read an entire physics textbook in the blink of an eye, or recall the molecular structure of complex substances from memory, but I was used to being the smartest person in the room, and being able to do mental tasks that others were envious of. I didn’t (and don’t) lack emotions, but with my monotone voice and serious, aloof, manner of speaking, I suspect I often came across as unemotional. Perhaps I still do.
That alone, however, wasn’t enough to make Data a hero to me. It was the way Data continued to try to be human, to be more than a ‘machine’, that inspired me. If Data did not understand humor, he tried to imitate comedians. If the emotional power of music was beyond him, he attempted to gain insight by learning to play the violin. He did what he could, continuously studying the behaviors and ways of the humans (and other aliens), so that he might come closer to being human. I came to use similar techniques. I imitated the voice patterns and speech of the people around myself, and even people on television. I might never completely understand people on their own level, but I could study and understand in the same way I learned math or science, and then use that knowledge to better approximate whatever thought or feeling I wanted to convey. In Data’s continuous attempts to be more human, he accomplished things that one might think impossible for an android. While he never would be totally human, he came to discover his own value and appreciate his own unique place in the world. It was this that made him an inspiration to me. Even today, when I find socialization confusing or challenging or just plain annoying, I often think of him, and how he never stopped trying to understand a world that would never understand him. He never quit, or gave up, and he used his unique talents to do great things, and in the end, isn’t that what being a hero is all about?