I grew up on a steady diet of heroes. When I was six, they were the Karate Kid, G.I. Joe and Wolverine. I then graduated to Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones and Rambo. It wasn’t until sometime in the middle of high school that someone told me movies weren’t real, and I was crushed. Shortly thereafter I learned the truth about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Needless to say, it was a difficult time in my life.

So I had to find some new heroes. With the help of one of my high school history teachers, I learned about Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. These, my new heroes, were not the warriors of my early imagination – unless you want to call them warriors for peace. Which sounds a little goofy, but I was suddenly very into the lingo of activism.

Included with these “warriors” was the Dalai Lama. He, along with the rest of them, seemed larger than life, full of goodness, full of wisdom, full of strength. It seemed, in fact, that no mere mortal would be able to match the level of compassion and moral fortitude that he embodied. Then, of course, there was the fact that he was supposed to have been reincarnated over and over again. How could I hope to match up to someone who has had so many more lifetimes than I to reach perfection? I must admit that I am sometimes bummed by my own many flaws, and it sure would be nice not to be tempted by the dark side. I have recently decided that, perhaps, it is unwise to raise anyone to such a pedestal, and the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to the National Cathedral solidified that belief.

I arrived at the National Cathedral on the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, two hours before the doors were even supposed to open. Counting backwards I decided I was about 700th in line. When I asked a guard about the seating capacity, he told me that there were seats for 3,800 in the cathedral. Not too bad, I figured. I settled into line between a group of punks with mohawks and colored hair and three elderly women. Both groups were very polite, and several on either side were reading books about the Dalai Lama. We were finally let into the Cathedral around 2:45 p.m., and I admit that I was feeling quite excited. Nobody very important, much less the Dalai Lama, ever visits my hometown in Alabama. After a group of the Drepung Loseling monks chanted a series of prayers, the Cathedral Choir sang and the Bishop of Washington gave a welcome. He solemnly offered the Tibetan khata (white offering scarf) to the Dalai Lama, who was clearly having a hard time keeping a straight face. I could see him chuckling as he, in turn, offered the khata to the Bishop. I wondered what was going on up there. But I felt good about it. I had expected the Dalai Lama to be a dry old man with a droning voice, but he turned out to be much the opposite. There was too much life bubbling out of him for it all to be bottled up by a frown.

Along with a number of other readings, the Dalai Lama gave a teaching on “cultivating peace” as an “antidote to violence.” He talked about our culture of consumerism and covetousness, and said we should learn to be content. He talked of being serious about religion, whatever denomination you might belong to, rather than living a sort of half-hearted spiritual life. He didn’t deliver any of this in a heavy-handed manner, but rather in the kindly manner of a favorite grandparent. He talked of his own shortcomings, and admitted to being only a beginner in the struggle for peace and happiness. I was surprised particularly when he mentioned that he has dreams sometimes, and that they embarrass him because monks aren’t supposed to have dreams like that. Everyone had a good laugh, including the Dalai Lama.

The service concluded with a few more prayers and a postlude, and I left feeling happy. One of my heroes turned out to be more than a good person; he turned out to be a genuinely nice guy. And his message was that more can be accomplished with compassion and cheerfulness than with resignation or cumbersome solemnity.

Neal Call is a sophomore in the College.

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