In both fiction and real life, the hero has had a rough journey over the past hundred years. Two World Wars, a depression, a Cold War, a cultural revolution, several skirmishes — military and political — and a jihad have left us in a state of near nervous breakdown. The twentieth century was unrelenting in its assault on who we thought we were and wanted to be. And the twenty-first century hasn’t been off to a very good start either.
All this time, the hero has taken a sustained and monstrous beating by a group of thugs, each one wielding the rhetorical equivalent of a spiked club engraved with its owner’s moniker: history, media, politics, academia, art. One by one, they bludgeoned her, until she lay there, while we wrung our hands in frustration, outraged over her fallibility.
With every blow, our cross-cultural, bi-partisan definition of what it means to be a hero was dismantled. First, it was gutted, shouted down.
Later, it was diluted, democratized. According to current cultural norms, anyone can be a hero, as long as they do the minimum of what is expected of them — show up for work, for instance, parent the children they bring into this world, or employ a righteous hashtag.
It’s a pretty low bar to clear. A far cry from what a person had to do to earn the title of hero back in the day. That definition went something like this:
A hero is a person who, in the face of danger or extreme obstacles, combats adversity through extraordinary feats of bravery, often sacrificing her own personal concerns or safety for a greater good.
I’d like to make a case for upping our standards and bringing that common definition back.
As a wife, mother, daughter and citizen, I look to people who have done extraordinary things, even dangerous things, and imagine myself in their shoes. I strive to live up to their example; understand them not as overblown, implausible superhero types in a Marvel Comic franchise, but as indelibly human. Accessible and necessary.
As a writer and reader, I am compelled to evolve and improve only by characters whose feats are big enough, whose journeys are capacious enough, they can remake a person’s heart. Make it grow several sizes the way The Grinch’s did, after he stole Christmas, then gave it back again.
The heroic men and women in the best fiction are people who make me feel as if my own heart will burst like a star. I want to flatter myself into thinking they’d choose me as a friend or lover. They make me up my game, as I endeavor to earn their respect and attention — even if only in my mind.
Perseus, Frodo Baggins, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Katniss Everdeen immediately come to mind when I think of gold-standard make-believe heroes. All of them flush with wit, courage, tenderness, an iron resolve that is both noble and humble. They are not unaware of their gifts and responsibilities… or personal foibles.
These exemplars transform us from within, make us wish for the heavens. After all, few human beings actually long for the lowest hanging fruit, yet we all face the temptation to settle for it.
But heroes shift the paradigm.
Adhering to a code, never justifying inaction, a hero is a rare individual to be sure and we know one when we meet one. He seems to express valor in deeds large and small, and we might find ourselves drawn to him even before we learn anything of his more extraordinary nature. His propensity to jump in and help quell violence during a political demonstration run amok is as immediate as his instinct to bend down and clean up a splotch of red wine a busy waiter has left in his wake.
Of course, we might feel vaguely uncomfortable in his presence, too.
Because as much as we are grateful for a hero’s very existence, he doesn’t always make us feel good when we aren’t in desperate need of his services. When we haven’t been bitten by a shark and find ourselves unable to make it to shore alone, or aren’t facing an irate mob who hates us for our beliefs, he might make us feel less valuable, or worse, force us to consider changing our ways. Becoming more like him.
And not all of us really want to stick our necks out in a life and death situation, or chance disgrace by standing up for an unpopular theme or individual. Even Peter denied Christ three times.
Heroes challenge who we think we are.
In life, I think of Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, then gave it away, when he could have made millions right off the bat.
In fiction, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all time favorites. Poor, trustworthy, of an essence carved from stone, he went up against an entire town — his town, his home, his people — to defend the weak, the scorned, the misunderstood.
True heroes leave us agog, in a way that makes mere fandom — for a terrific entertainer, or super-successful tech billionaire — seem a trifle embarrassing.
And they hold a mirror to our souls, too.
Sometimes that mirror becomes distorted, like the one in the fun house. We use it to bend the definition of hero to our needs. Water it down, by ascribing chivalrous language to the entrepreneur who declares his allegiance with the sustainability movement, the actress who speaks out against bullying, the talk show host who battles cancer. We call them things like “fearless” and “valiant”, whipping up a frenzy about conduct that is admirable to be sure, but not really outside the realm of normal behavior.
And maybe that’s the point.
Part of us wants heroism to be accessible. Something we can all take a bite out of. It gives our trials and tribulations more meaning, or so the logic goes. And instead of doing better, trying harder, we reshape the definition of hero to make it look more like us.
But in having demolished what it means to be a hero, we have not only downgraded expectations of ourselves, but our authority figures as well. We’ve become vague, confused, cynical, accepting crude and unethical behavior not just in the people we celebrate in art, sports and business, but in our media body, and our elected officials.
Frustrated, let-down, we’ve sought solace in our tribes, turning against some of our fellow citizens. Ones who may revere a different type of hero than the kind we champion of our Facebook pages. Soldier vs activist, priest vs scientist, dark vs fair, man vs woman. We point accusing fingers at each other instead of at ourselves, forgetting that heroes are sculpted from the values they serve — love, honor, duty, courage — and less so the circumstances of their birth or the causes they take up.
To get better, we must be better, demand more. Learn once again how to agree on heroic qualities and behaviors that stand the test of time, rather than cater to fleeting notions of valor that are beholden to cultural fashions. We must retrain ourselves to distinguish superior human merits from cherry-picked affiliations.
Notions of bravery, conviction, integrity, strength, and rightfulness that transcend the bonds of social class, race, gender and politics. Ones that involve very real stakes with often stark choices.
These are what make the hero. They draw an indelible line between them and us: the true hero and the good citizen. A hero builds our greater framework, often working at its outer edges. We follow in smaller ways. Not unimportant ways, but smaller ones nonetheless. It is the difference between suffering a disease — no matter how graciously — and taking the risk of contracting it in order to ease the suffering of others.
“I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island [of Molokai, a leper colony] and give up my work. I am perfectly resigned to my lot. Do not feel sorry for me.” –St. Damien of Molokai, who devoted his life to working with lepers until succumbing to the disease himself.
Father Damien on his deathbed
While not perfect, heroes are moralists. They must be in order to do what they do. Without an unshakable sense of right and wrong, a hero wouldn’t act. It’s difficult for a relativist to take heroic action. Not impossible, but hard. She’d be thinking too much about context and consequences. In short, she’d behave like a regular person, someone who needs a hero, but is not one herself.
Contrast her with Joshua Mooi, a twenty-two year-old Iraq-based Marine who ran into a building filled with armed insurgents to provide support and recover wounded Marines. Under constant fire, he ran inside six times. He kept going until his rifle was destroyed and he was ordered to stop.
And Lauren Prezioso, who was enjoying a day at the beach with her husband and young son, when she heard a mother’s desperate cries. Her two boys were being swept out to sea! Despite being eight months pregnant, Prezioso and another beach-goer dove into the water and rescued the boys, themselves nearly drowning in the process.
True heroes wake the lions in our hearts.
They wrench the meekest of us from our ordinary lives, granting us the courage to grow into what deep down we all ache to become. Anything less not only makes for inconsequential fiction, but unremarkable lives.