Who is a hero? A hero is an ideal, the pure expression of one's aspirations. The choice of a hero is subjective and illustrates a person's individuality. When questioned about their personal idols, a disconcertingly large number of people rush to name actors, sports stars, musicians and even superheroes. What fazes me is the extent of superficiality and consequent lack of identity that envelops these devotees. With all due respect, I find it hard to accept that a majority of Americans honestly aim to become Superman.
Paul Erdos never learned to tie his shoes, never drove a car or sliced his own piece of fruit. Yet he was adulated by the top intellectuals of the world and figured pre-eminently into the legends of twentieth-century mathematics. Totally incapable of the mundane essentials of living, Erdos achieved the satisfaction that so many people seek. He listened to his anima and ignored the demands of collective society.
This is the sort of hero whose life goes unrecognized. His genius exceeded renowned scholars and monopolized number theory. Erdos's mathematical omniscience awed his reputable colleagues. For the 83 years of his life, however, Americans ignored this man who reached their own dreams of personal nirvana. Only this year have his accomplishments been recorded and received their due veneration. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (by Paul Hoffman), was reviewed recently by the New York Times as a biography that opens doors on a world and characters that are often invisible. A new hero has emerged for those who, like me, are sickened by the lengthy roster of hallowed athletes and rock stars.
I can see myself tasting the world from Erdos's perspective: I seem to be incapable of chores like dishes and dusting. My senses of temperature and relative distance are totally lacking. I am inept at cooking and my dad pours my bowl of cereal each morning to save me the trouble of fumbling with the directions. My younger brother prepares meals for me when my parents aren't home, because I still cannot handle frozen pizza or eggs. I have no spatial skills whatsoever. My mind thrives, however, in the abstract. Music, creative writing, religion and art come easily to me. Math is a thrill until the end of every unit when we are expected to apply our knowledge to word problems and real-life situations. At that point, my understanding collapses.
Paul Erdos accomplished a lifestyle that, to me, touches on the highest of aspirations. I have found someone to relate to who was heroic in his ability to follow his inclinations. My expectations in life parallel Erdos's actuality. I aim for the respect and freedom he enjoyed.
My personal hero didn't play basketball, he never wrote a song, he steered away from pop culture altogether. It's unfortunate that so many people reach dead ends in their quests for idolatry. Sometimes we have to search beyond the range of our cable channels to find the heroes that help define ourselves. Q
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.