A day or so ago, a young boy named Carlos became a “hero” in America. Having the presence of mind in a home break-in to secrete himself and his younger sister in a bathroom and call 911, he may well have averted serious injury or death to members of his family.
He is rightly so named a hero at the tender age of seven. Well, it got me to thinking about the word hero and of its over/mis-use today.
Hero has many definitions and we will ignore those that refer to mythological creatures and sandwiches. Generally we think of this definition when we think of hero: a person of uncommon valor and bravery often resulting in the risking of one’s life or safety to help another. A secondary meaning may be a person who is “idealized ” as possessing superior qualities or who has achieved greatly in a field of endeavor.
Much of what passes for heroism today is sheer poppycock I would argue. In attempts to climb higher on the backs of each other, politicians are prepared to gush over every single person who signs up at a recruiting station to join our armed services. No longer the place of the man or woman who does some “heroic” deed, all soldiers are today heroes. Certainly all dead and wounded soldiers are so.
If we claim this status for them because they risk their lives to protect us (however tangential that might actually be), then by rights firefighters and police persons must also en mass be so considered. But what is to limit us here? Are not those who risk their lives to move us from place to place entitled to this appellation? The pilot? But then more people die in cars than planes, so how about the bus driver and cab driver?
How about those that risk life and limb to entertain us? The extreme sports enthusiast, the motorcycle daredevil? The plot thickens and the lines become even more blurred. Are sports figures heroic because they spend years perfecting their bodies and responses to win top honors?
To be sure, there are heroes among all these groups. But I don’t think it comes with the labelling of doctor, astronaut, or soldier. One can make a good argument that there is nothing heroic in well trained individuals making rational danger assessments and using finely honed skills that the rest of us don’t possess. One can make the argument that certain heroics are the product of minds not sharp enough to assess danger and are thus stupid choices, that luckily turned out well. One can make the argument that some heroics are the result of a primitive brain reaction that compels the body without giving time to rational thought. Again, luck wills out over common sense.
Yet undeniably there are heroes. Heroes can be those that don’t lose their heads in a traumatic experience, and can operate with calm logic. Seven year old Carlos meets this criteria. Heroes can be those that overcome horrific experiences and somehow will themselves forward to accomplish great things where so many others give up. Heroes can be those that find themselves the recipient of disastrous fate and stay with it, even though their lives are forever altered and dreams long dreamt discarded.
Heroes it seems come in two forms. Those that are physical and those that are inspirational. The hero might be the parent who really does risk life and limb to save a child, rationally concluding that this is the right thing to do, even if they die as a result. The one who dies for the many.
The inspirational are those people who offer us a glimpse of a life well lived–a life of purpose and sacrifice, of work and setback, but a life of determination, hope and a surety that if one pushes forward, surely good things will happen down the road. The ghetto kid who survives the mean streets of urban society and by hard work achieves the pinnacle of success in a field of endeavor far beyond the dreams of any of those he or she grew up around, comes to mind.
It seems to me that when we enlarge the pool so to speak, we diminish these folks and the incredible gift they offer us. We are well on the way to making the term hero meaningless. During the Olympics, we were told again and again that this athlete or that was the “hero” of their country, upon which everything (whatever that might mean) was riding. Hero because one could strap on skates and manage to twirl? I mean what is heroic in that?
It seems to me that heroism is a calculated risk. It is a rational assessment that a greater good can ensue if my actions work, and my death is not the only determiner of that assessment. It is a reasonable belief that I can be successful, live, and improve the plight of one, and hopefully many others. It is recognizing that I am ideally suited by training, intellect, psychology and so forth to take on this roll and that I have a better than even chance of being successful. Depending on the consequences of success or failure, my survival becomes a variable of greater or lesser significance.
We need to honor heroes, but we need to not water them down to the point that the concept is meaningless. I fear that we have done that. I’m happy to honor Carlos for his heroic actions, perhaps far beyond what we would expect of a child his age. The trite determination of a woman who skates days after her mothers untimely death,while sad, is simple not in the same league.