Let’s talk about heroes. Our region has been attacked by wild-land fires this summer. Many papers and social media postings have lauded the firefighters as heroes. Every living veteran of WWII has been called a hero. Everyone returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq has already been given that status. It may yet happen that veterans of Korea and Vietnam will be hailed en masse as heroes.
We are, it seems, submerged in a sea of heroes, so what is a hero? That’s a question that each may have to answer for him or her self. However, there are some starting points to consider. From Greek mythology on, a hero was someone of virtue who exhibited extraordinary courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Sometimes the hero was an adventurer seeking fame and fortune. Sometimes he, and it was usually a he, displayed heroic courage in defense of some worthy cause. In any case, the hero stood out in virtuous courage from among all others who found themselves in the same situation.
In our time heroes have typically been persons who have stood out in the relatively few fields of endeavor that offered opportunity for heroism. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine the stellar best of the generation of musicians, artists, or scholars as heroes. What’s missing is the element of danger: the very real possibility that they might be injured or lose their lives. Nobel Prize winners may be lauded as the best in their fields, but never as heroes. War,on the other hand, is an environment rich in the possibility for heroism to emerge. War heroes are those singular individuals whose exploits gained public visibility well beyond the courage and perseverance of their comrades.
For some reason I don’t fully understand, we humans seem to require the presence of heroes. Maybe that’s why war, and war like games, have been important characteristics of nearly every culture and civilization. If we can’t have real war, what’s the next best thing for raising up heroes. Sports, but only sports where the possibility of physical danger is always present, albeit with a large measure of uncertainty, even mystery. Boxing would be an unlikely place to discover a hero because the probability of injury is almost certain, and the only question is which boxer can inflict the most injury. Football, on the other hand, is fraught with uncertainty, and so there is opportunity for the hero to emerge as he faces overwhelming odds. Moreover, there cannot be an entire team of heroes. There can only be a small handful, maybe three at most and usually just one. Baseball and basketball can sometimes produce heroes, but not often, and it would be wrong to confuse Hall of Fame calibre performance as heroism. Scholars can find themselves marked as heroes only if they are of the Indiana Jones ilk, something exceedingly rare outside of fiction. “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” is the herald of an impending opportunity for heroism to arise.
I suspect that sports heroism is such a commonly celebrated form of the heroic genre, not because sports produce true heroes, but because it produces living metaphors for the truly heroic that is embedded in American culture. Sports heroes are known for ‘taking one for the team’, which I think is a cultural metaphor for the greater heroism prominent in American myth where the hero willingly puts him or herself in mortal danger to protect the welfare of others. We see that expressed in the stories told about great American heroes. Our history books are packed with heroes: George Washington, David Farragut, John Paul Jones, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Cochise, and Geronimo, among others. For some it may be the heroism of a firefighter saving someone from a burning building, or a police officer putting his life on the line to protect another. It might be a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Rosa Parks.
The point is that heroes are singular persons who rise above all the others about them when when faced with physical danger and the outcome is uncertain, but there is one thing more. What heroes do to be noticed beyond others must be wrapped in the cloak of moral virtue. Bonnie and Clyde, for example, showed a unique sort of courage in the face of physical danger the outcome of which was uncertain, but no reasonable person would call them heroic because their cause lacked moral virtue. For that matter, NFL football seems to be sliding down the slope of losing whatever moral virtue it was supposed to represent, and could soon enter the ranks of professional wrestling as an icon of moral turpitude, except, of course, for the Seahawks, but I digress.
Heroes are recognized by the virtuous acts of courage that set them apart from all others. They are singular people experiencing singular events in which the heroic act is both possible and recognized by others. The opportunity for heroism comes and goes. The hero of today may never again do anything heroic. And thus it seems unlikely that all firefighters are heroes, and it is not especially helpful to say that they are. Most are simply doing their job in the best way they know how, showing considerable courage in the face of imminent danger, but no more than anyone else who is there on the line with them. Are all returning military veterans heroes? No, nor, I suspect, do they want to be. Most never have seen combat and intend to keep it that way. Others have simply done their duty in the best way they knew how, watching out for their buddies, and hoping not to get killed. Do they deserve respect, honor and thanks for the service they have rendered to their country? Yes by all means, and in abundance!
Heroes? Heroes need to be a limited species.