Pop Mythology’s February hero of the month: Sam Berns

From ‘Life According to Sam’ (HBO)

There aren’t a whole lot of things that I can boldly proclaim about myself without embarrassment or self-consciousness. But there are a few things that I can. With absolute conviction.

One of those things is that I don’t just talk a good talk. I walk my talk. And while the range of topics that I preach about is intentionally limited, within that range you can damn well believe that I practice what I preach.

But even so, I have my moments of faltering.

As alluded to in my last post about wanting to give up, I recently went through a pretty rough patch in which various things kind of just mounted on top of each other, with an intensifying physical illness at the core of it.

A couple of days ago I had an MRI done to try to figure out the cause of a more recent symptom, chronic headaches. I had done my research and knew that the likelihood of these headaches actually being caused by something like a malignant tumor wasn’t high, necessarily, but we did the test anyway on my doctor’s suggestion, just in case.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a tumor.  Still, there was a chance that it could  have been one, so I used that as an opportunity to do a mental exercise. I imagined what it’d be like if and when I did hear the doctor say, “We’re very sorry, but you have a malignant growth in your brain. It’s inoperable.” It wasn’t some pointless, let’s stress-myself-out-before-the-fact kind of fantasizing. It was more of a gentle visualization to expand my awareness beyond my own present situation and to not take the time I have for granted.

I thought about people who die all the time in sudden, unexpected ways, who still have so many things left undone and so much left going for them. I used to sometimes tell myself: I can’t die yet, I still have a few important goals left to accomplish. Yeah, well, so did they. I thought of children, teenagers and young men and women who pass away before they’ve had a chance to experience life fully. And as I heard those imagined words, “We’re very sorry,” notwithstanding the natural shock and fear, I knew that I could come to a calm acceptance of it. Because I’ve at least had a life. Not a long one but not such a short one.

My February Hero of the Month is someone who did have a life also, mostly due to his own courage and efforts. But it was far too short, and there were still many experiences and accomplishments which, had he lived long enough, he would have surely accomplished with that stellar, infectiously positive mindset of his. February’s Hero is Sam Berns who died last month on Jan. 10.

The Internet eulogies and gestures of remembrance still continue, but this isn’t going to be a eulogy. This is going to be Hero Worship.

If you’ve read my January Hero of the Month post about Lizzie, you may see some of the parallel themes here with Sam. But as I’ve said once before a big reason why I write these posts is to inspire myself and right now people like Lizzie and Sam are the heroes I need (and can only try my best to deserve).

You see, I am forgetful. One day—let us say after having just seen Lizzie and Sam’s respective TED talks—I am soaring on top of the world. I feel like with the inspiration they’ve gifted to me I will surely surmount my challenges. The next day, when the dragon of inflammation sinks its claws into me, and the wraith of chronic fatigue sucks the spirit out of me, I wonder how I can even just respond to my e-mails or make that important phone call.

This is why I need frequent reminders. And this is why I need my Hero of the Month.

Just as I am not perfect, Lizzie and Sam aren’t my heroes because they are perfect or even anything remotely close to it. We the public usually get to see them only in their finest moments, in their deserved moments of triumph. But they too have had many of those days when they just felt completely alone, when they wanted to quit or just tell everyone to go to hell. Or to curl up into a tiny ball and disappear forever.

The main difference between a Lizzie and a Sam and those who become indefinitely trapped in a downward spiral is that they are simply able to pull themselves out of their funks faster. And the key to that is simply realizing what’s happening when one does fall into a downward pull and to consciously pull oneself out of it by evoking one’s ideals and principles. And the key to that are systematic reminders set into place because otherwise we not only forget, we don’t even realize that we’ve forgotten. One example of  a systematic reminder for me are these Heroes of the Month posts.

So thank you, Sam, for reminding my amnesic self of something that Lizzie had already reminded me of only just yesterday. Tomorrow, I’ll probably need someone else to remind me. But today it is you.

You said that you wanted to change the world. Some might say that you died before you could. I say that you already did  change the world—or at least mine. And I believe that the only true way that we can ever really change the big World is by changing one small world at a time. You light my candle and I will light someone else’s and she, in turn, will go on to light someone else’s as well. Thus is the world healed and transformed the only way it can be.

And what’s the pop culture connection this time? Not much, except that Sam was apparently a big comic book fan (of course, he was—all the cool people are) and that it was one of his favorite things to do to think about something else besides his illness.

Is there a mythical connection? Certainly. There always is. But I don’t feel I have to explicitly spell it out each and every month and anyway that would get annoying, wouldn’t it?

No, in Sam Berns’ case I think it is better to simply say that he himself has gone the way of mythology. He himself is now a mythical hero whose story will hopefully be told to people, young and old alike, so that they may never feel that their situation is hopeless or too difficult because there was once a brave one who went before and who showed that it could be done.

And so this post ends with a beginning which goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a young boy. And his name was Sam….  

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.


  1. The HBO doc about Sam is just wonderful! What a hero!

  2. Another well written and inspirational article.

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