This year is the 100th birthday of the great Jacques Cousteau. My whole life I’ve seen him as a hero: someone serious, brave, on a search – like this picture – a life etched against his own adventure. But, this is not what I was thinking a few days ago when my four-year-old son ran from the sea screaming, “I’m saving myself from the Ocean!”

Luca had been talking to the waves in a rapid back and forth manner, as he made a mad dash from the very same discussion with that same sea.

Watch children who are practicing what it means to be brave, or safe, or on their own, and you may observe their testing of the sea. Yes, they could be sucked into the water – because they’ve been told it. But, they choose to play with the water because deep down there is a feeling of being in a story with it. And, so they alternate with the sea being the monster and they playing the hero. Either way, children seem to feel how we begin and end with water.

This is our human story with the sea isn’t it? The Greeks wrote of the ocean as the great gatherer of forces, of secrets, of men and their journey into the unknown. Rarely was the sea the hero – the hero was a person taken far from home, meant to conquer lands, meant to schtup women and in the end get the lasting point that (as Dorothy reminds us in the Wizard of Oz) “there’s no place like home”.  For the Greeks, the sea was not home – it was the middle place between humanness and becoming heroic: it was the unconscious (before they knew of such a thing) – it was the endless depth of discovery.

Other great poets and writers have taken the sea on.  From Moby Dick to Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” (my new favorite poem, thanks to dad) the sea has been the anti-hero, and man (usually, male) has found the path to heroism by being witness to the beasts in and off the sea – and most often, killing them.

Hero’s, in the past, have been the killers on the sea – or, the killers of the sea. It was rarely a love affair.

I’ve started to think that our relationship to heroes may be part of our problem when it comes to the death of our sea. Or, to be more blunt, the concept of heroism may need to be completely changed in order for people, humans, those of us not riding alongside Ulyssess, to do something to save the sea.

What’s wrong with heros? We need them, don’t we? We’re supposed to grow up to be them. A hero, we believe, is a person who, against all odds chooses the right thing. Or, chooses the selfless thing in order for others to live. Or, chooses to tell the truth. Yes. These are all the necessary elements for being the better part of valor: the person who stands on the earth and takes the harder road. You know this. You’ve been told to try to be one, at least once in your life.

Yet, being heroic seems so out of reach. Because, in this contemporary time, heroes are also supposed to be “super” – never harmed, always in the right, fearless: not very real – much like the plastic super heroes that we give our kids.

I look at these these plastic superhero dolls and can only see how they represent this “too much-ness” – the unattainable perfection – like Tiger Woods: who is a perfect plastic thing. He even has an action figure.

Ah, Tiger, how the hero falls. In true Greek form, Nike put an advertisement with Tiger looking into the camera, not speaking, while the voiceover of his (now dead) father asks him, like Zeus from above, what has he learned: is he now a man?

It is all out of reach, this real hero thing. So, we commoditize it and make our heroes plastic action figures, and then we end up with their bits and pieces floating in the sea.

I asked my friend J who is a biologist with turtles, why we throw things into the sea? Poison. Plastic. Toxic crap. And, his point was clear – we have always sent things out to the sea: dead bodies into the horizon, candles, bottles with messages, skipping rocks – we have always put ourselves out into the sea to make sure that is ends up, “There”.

There, is that place beyond the horizon where our animal brain believes the Sun lives. There, is the place that takes our feelings and comforts us. There, is where we think the junk and plastic goes – magically transformed into something clean.

Though, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There is no there, there”.  She meant it about Oakland, but I mean it about the sea. There is no There anymore: no Monster of the Sea that we need to Tackle.  No hero we will become by trying to conquer it.

Cousteau was a hero. He was not plastic, although the production of plastic was just beginning to be made when he was born. He did not go to the sea to fight it. He did not go to conquer it: he went to the sea to find the world beneath us. As a naturalist, and a scientist it was not his job to anthropomorphize the sea as a hero, or the species in it: it was his job to teach us – and in turn point out our interconnection.

Sadly, it may be that because the role of the hero cannot work anymore, we therefore do not know how to be heroic when it comes to the environment. We are of the habit to look to individual people to be the hero – like Al Gore and many others – we look to “Them” to save “There”.  Yet, it is the “We” – groups of children and adults, artists and scientists, politicians and writers, groups of people will redefine the “hero” into something more powerful: not throwing ourselves into the abyss, but taking small, fast actions to enact change. This is not about some mushy, sentimental “liberal” concept of togetherness – it’s the very hard truth that the sea is choking to death, and one hero will not be able to “fix” it. Heroism itself is just another “ism” – and, “We” is a complicated, layered solution that we are not good at, yet.

It is very hard to let go of this desire to be a hero, and, it is not just a man’s struggle: it’s a struggle for all of us to not try to be perfect. And, maybe,  it’s our fear of not being perfect that has led to the commoditization of heroes – we’ve turned “Heroic” stature into plastic – the very thing that is killing the sea.

Does this all mean that we need to find the resolve, both the love and the grief, to admit that we must save the ocean – the true hero – from ourselves?

Yet, even after all this pondering, I admit it, I truly wonder what Cousteau would do?

Probably tell us to get off our asses.

But, he’d say it with a great accent, a smile, and a look that if you let him down you’d let down the ocean herself.