In recent weeks, I’ve been trying to understand the concept of heroism. I’ve watched a number of popular films, and found the heroes to be egotistical, smug and smarmy, imbued with some sort of special ability, and often not particularly likeable. They usually dress in revealing costumes that in actual life would be considered inappropriate outside a strip club. They are brash, noble to the point of being insufferable, and are inclined to suck up so much attention that everyone else disappears. They are no one you would want at your dinner table. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: Every hero becomes a bore at last. At least in this regard.
I have studied the prime-time television and literary heroes also. These are men and women who can’t leap over tall buildings, but think faster than a speeding bullet. Not more powerful than a locomotive, they harness enormous intellectual and natural energies. Lacking special abilities like invisibility, telepathy or flight, they are brilliant in their fields, solve crimes or make incredible discoveries, and their only costumes may be a lab coat, or a badge and a gun. Unlike their cinematic grandiose counterparts, over time we discover they have backstories, generally revealing deficiencies, tragedies, crisis and conflict. This is to make them more seem more real.
I come away from episodes of CSI: Miami (sadly, now defunct) and NCIS thinking, ‘Horatio Caine—what a terrific guy he is! I wouldn’t mind him for a friend,’ or ‘Leroy Jethro Gibbs—fantastic! Strong, noble, humble, modest, and no nonsense! I wish he’d been with me in high school!’
The principle difference between the two types is that the second type is rather ordinary in his or her abilities, and is much more credible. If they have anything extra, it is something they have built from ordinary abilities and qualities. They have reached within and done great things.
Being a hero is a matter of degree. Some throw themselves on bombs to protect others, and no one doubts their heroism. Some give the last chop on the plate to their children, and no one recognizes their heroism. Some are celebrities because they’re heroes, others are heroes because they are celebrities, and still others are heroes because they are unknown. Our teachers, historical figures, and even celebrities, can be heroes simply because we admire them, and although they may have done nothing particularly heroic.
I asked someone for his definition of what made someone a hero. His first thoughts were for police, firefighters, and the military. He was especially appreciative of those people who were committed to preserving the safety and security of his family, handling matters no one knew existed. He may have been speaking of spies, but that’s classified.
I agree with him, and I have some thoughts of my own to add.
I think you are a hero—not in the ‘leap over tall buildings’ sense, but in the sense of having heroic qualities. Heroism is more often the result of a quality than an activity. How often do you give of yourself and look for no reward? Or more probably, give of yourself knowing you will receive no reward, but do it anyway? How often do you face challenges that are significant to you (if to no one else), and persevere despite the difficulty? How often do you not make that cutting remark, embrace inconvenience for the sake of another, or walk away to preserve the peace? You are a hero.
I think the person who deliberately gets out of bed and goes to a job he despises in order to support his family is a hero. He might say he has no choice, but he does—he could stay in bed and let the family starve. The person in a difficult situation and doesn’t do anything is a hero because she isn’t making it worse. When she knows what to do, and does it, she will still be a hero drawing on different heroic qualities. The person who makes promises and keeps them, even at his own expense, is a hero. I think anyone who does something selfless, even at his or her own expense, is a hero. The person who faces any fear, no matter how trifling or massive, is a hero. Heroism isn’t just about doing for others, it’s also about doing for yourself in trying circumstances, bringing out your real qualities and putting away masks and excuses.
Anyone who can be The Real Self is a hero.
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