What Does It Mean to Be a Hero?

One day many, many years ago I was working on an assignment for my literature class at school. We had read the story of the national mythological hero and had to write an essay on it. I can no longer remember the exact title of the essay, but it had to do with heroism and with heroes. It could have been something along these lines – what does it mean to be a hero? And indeed – what does it mean? We all have our intuitions about it, all our narratives have at least one hero, most of us love them, support them, want them to ‘win’. Yet, for example, if a young child asked you – what is it, a ‘hero’? – what would you answer? 

Curiously enough, my answer hasn’t changed much since the day I was writing that essay many years ago. I must have been around 14 years old back then. In my assignment, I explained which character from the mythological story was my favourite hero. It wasn’t the classical good guy or the classical bad guy. Also, it wasn’t the good guy’ s lady – she too was a personification of goodness. Rather, it was this fourth character, another lady. At the beginning of the story, she was one of the bad ones, but during the narrative, she went through some harsh experiences, realized a lot of things about herself and the world, and developed a better character. She transformed herself. Interestingly, also the main character, the classical good guy, underwent self-transformation as he saw what this lady had gone through to improve herself. He accepted her as one of his friends, recognizing the importance of the self-transformation as part of what it takes to become a real hero. When his good-lady-wife objected and voiced her concern about his decision, he responded with a few short words of genuine wisdom: only the one who transforms will endure. In my eyes, having done this, he turned out to be a much smarter guy than I thought he was at the beginning of the story. 

It was this capacity for active self-transformation for the sake of a goal beyond one`s ego that I highlighted as a crucial part of what it meant to be a hero. It also involves being able to do what needs to be done in any given situation, and what the others cannot do, for whatever reason. Yet, here too it is evident that heroic quality attaches itself to those who are and act beyond themselves. To be a hero, it is not enough to simply fulfil your duties. This is something we expect from a person. We do not, however, expect that a person must be a hero. We might hope for a hero in times of need, but this only confirms how much beyond the ‘normal’ duty expectations the idea of a hero goes. Therefore, being a hero involves pushing oneself higher and above one’s ego, current state, duties, and limitations. It involves courage and selflessness because a hero must inevitably face the unknown, that which no one knows how to deal with. Also, it involves self-transformation because if one goes beyond one`s self, one does not return to the same place – the ‘self’ undergoes a transformation.   

Have you ever wondered what makes the heroes from the ancient Greek myths so fascinating? Or, if you prefer modern mythology – the heroes from the ”Star Wars” saga? The out-and-out ‘good guys’, the ones who never make mistakes, who are always right from beginning to the end, who know what’s the right thing to do and always do it, who never fall, never succumb to any weakness, they are too perfect, too unreal, too abstract, and so – too boring. None of us could ever be able to even vaguely see ourselves in such a ‘hero’. We simply are not so ideal, we cannot relate to all that unwavering glory. And that, I believe, is crucial. 

We need to be able to relate to our heroes to truly love them. We want to be able to see better versions of ourselves in them and to aspire to that higher level of being. How can this be achieved? Vulnerability. We want to see our hero fall, suffer, recognize his condition, gather his strength, courage and power of will motivated by a selfless goal, and come out of whatever abyss he had fallen into, reborn, like the famous Phoenix bird coming back to life from ashes of death. Self-transformation. Against all odds. That is why we have more respect for those who fall and get back up that for those who never fall.    

Phoenix detail from Aberdeen Bestiary(1)

Through such acts of self-transformation in the face of concrete, adverse circumstances, guided by a selfless motivation that transcends the personal ego, true heroes inspire us towards self-development, towards that better version of ourselves whose potential we feel within and see embodied in them. 

“If the chronicles of the Black Death at Marseille were to be trusted, only four of the eighty-one monks in the Mercy Monastery survived the epidemic. And of these four three took to flight. Thus far chronicler, and it was not his task to tell us more than the bare facts. But when he read that chronicle, Father Paneloux had found his thoughts fixed on that monk who stayed on by himself, despite the death of his seventy-seven companions, and, above all, despite the example of his three brothers who had fled. And, bringing down his fist on the edge of the pulpit, Father Paneloux cried in a ringing voice: ”My brothers, each one of us must be the one who stays!” There was no question of not taking precautions or failing to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal in the disorders of a pestilence. Nor should we listen to certain moralists who told us to sink on our knees and give up the struggle. No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.”

Albert Camus ”The Plague”

keep exploring!   

(1)Image reference, from wikimedia commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/6/61/20171004100709%21Phoenix_detail_from_Aberdeen_Bestiary.jpg

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