Where Have The Real Heroes Gone?

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Another hero
Another hero

Heroes, it sometimes seems, have been relegated to legend and myth. There are none left, none of the sort I used to associate with the name. Not in the media, anyway.

The word has been so abused in the media over the last century, tossed about in such a cavalier manner that it has lost its former credit; it has become debased language, its pith cored for showy effect, like glitter, like so many over-used superlatives have been. Its strength drained away.

Calling someone a hero today has the same punch as a teacher saying a child “lives up to his potential.”

A hero is now someone who shops wisely, drinks milk instead of pop, or drops off a bag of cat chow at the local animal shelter. I am a hero for recycling my kitchen waste, or so a label on my green bin says. There’s a gardening hero in Australia, who is called that for creating a TV show about – you guessed it – gardening. You can be a hero in your living room just by playing a video game and pushing buttons in the right order on a fake guitar.

It’s like the word awesome – so few things generate actual awe in us, but the word appears under Facebook pictures of kittens and puppies or tossed around in status posts.

Standing under the millennium-old arches of Westminster Abbey, I felt awe. I felt wonder. I felt diminished by the weight of history around me, reduced to a mere mortal by the lives that had passed through these halls before me. Awed by the sweeping majesty of it all.

Someone on social media bragging they’re awesome  – appropriating a word so it merely means egotistic or happy  – simply cannot compare in emotional depth to what I felt in the great cathedral, any more than my adding banana peels to the green bin is heroic.

And that’s unfortunate, because we really need a word for those people who do real, heroic deeds. Calling a firefighter who saves a child from a burning house a hero today puts him or her on the same level as me and my banana peels. And that’s not right. We need heroes to look up to, to idolize, to remind us of how important it is to act for non-selfish reasons.

Just being a good person isn’t being heroic. We used to call these people “good Samaritans” but in the age of hyperbole, we seem to have to raise the volume and make out that anyone who does a good deed, no matter how trivial, appears heroic.  And in doing so, we trivialize real heroism.

There are brave, courageous people who stand up for our rights and freedoms. There are kind and compassionate people who do acts of caring and determination. There are people who are courteous, polite civil; who say please and thank you, hold doors open and don’t fly into road rage at being passed on the highway. There are people who volunteer their time to help others, advocate for the greater good, and donate money to their causes.

They’re all wonderful, kind, even brave people. But they’re not heroes.

Dilbert hero

So who is a hero? It’s easy to imagine, but hard to define because we want to verbally reward people for being good and in our culture we tend to lean on superlatives to do the job. Calling them “good Samaritans”or charitable, or responsible doesn’t seem enough, even though there are precious few who deserve those terms.

So what can we call them that recognizes their contributions, but doesn’t vulgarize the word? We have no appropriate, alternative term in English.

On NPR, the question “Has the word “hero” been so overused that it’s losing its meaning?” was raised and they offered one definition:

…someone who voluntarily leaves a point of safety to assume life risk to save or attempt to save the life of another.

That is more of the classical sense of the word, the sense I appreciate most. A hero is someone who risks, who breaks out of the safe zone to help another. Puts his or her life on the line. Someone who puts aside selfishness and ego – very hard to do in today’s world of selfies and egregious self-esteem – and goes to the aid of another person regardless of the consequences.

The person who jumped off a subway platform to rescue someone who had fallen off is a hero. The conservation officer who refused to shoot two bear cubs is a good, compassionate and decent person, but not a hero.

Every solider, every police officer, every firefighter is a not hero just because they wear the uniform or do their jobs. They’re heroes when they risk themselves for someone else – and many do, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. They may be brave, they may be daring, but going to work, even going to war, doesn’t make one an automatic hero.

Back in early 2013, a story with the headline, “Waiter hailed as hero after standing up for boy with Down syndrome,” started with this opening:

A Houston waiter who refused to serve a customer last week did not lose his job. Instead, Michael Garcia is being celebrated for standing up for a little boy with Down syndrome, with people stopping to shake his hand at the restaurant where regulars are made to feel like part of the family.

The waiter spoke sternly to a customer who made “..a disparaging remark about Milo.”

Good for him. He acted like a responsible adult should act. And he deserves kudos for not acting like the silent majority in the restaurant – those who sat there, avoiding eye contact, eating their dinner, ignoring the abusive customer.

But that’s not being heroic. It’s being a good person. It’s doing what we all should do, if we had manners and civility in us. If we were upright.

A story on CBS in 2009 added this:

CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman said when he was a kid, a hero was an ideal. Today, on the other hand, just about every soldier, civil servant and six-figure athlete gets called a hero. And although some may duly be – you sure don’t have to be Superman to see right through the ones that aren’t… there’s a big difference between someone who has a heroic moment – and someone who’s a true hero. When Captain Sullenberg landed that plane in the Hudson – that was a heroic moment. It made him the Michael Jordan of plane-ditching. But the way he carried himself on 60 Minutes – that was a hero in the making.

Childhood heroes for the most part aren’t heroic. They are childhood idols. As much as I admired and loved Einstein and Darwin as a child, as much as I admire and respect Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins today, they aren’t heroes. They may be courageous in stating their opinions, in challenging establishment  ideas and opinions publicly, but that makes them brave and resourceful, not necessarily heroic.

I can respect and admire them, regardless of how they are called.

Nominate heroes of South Georgian Bay, says a front-page story in this weekend’s Connection. The story opens:

There are ordinary people living in our communities who do extraordinary things to make life better for the rest of us. In order to recognize these amazing people, Metroland Media has created a community awards initiative called Heroes of South Georgian Bay – 2015.
“We want to recognize, thank and honour our neighbours for making life a little better for the rest of us,” said editor-in-chief Lori Martin. “We want to make sure these people know what a difference they make in our communities.”

Yes, there are good people living in the region, people who make the effort to do well by others. They deserve to be recognized as role models for not succumbing to the demands of today’s egotistic, self-esteem-driven, consumer society. People who actually care about others, about their neighbourhoods and communities. They deserve to be thanked, publicly for being the sort of citizen we all should be. And it’s good that the paper has taken the initiative to do so, even if it’s meant to be self-serving.

But they’re not heroes.

This isn’t to denigrate their contributions to our communities or in any way disparage their work on our behalf. They have my sincere and heartfelt thanks. But calling someone a hero who “elevated the arts of our community” or who made it “possible for members of a team to get the most out of playing” is to further demean the word hero. Where is the risk, the daring, the possibility of self-sacrifice that a real hero makes?

A person who “uses their position as a business owner to better the lives of others by donating time, money or other resources to a cause or a variety of causes” isn’t a hero. They are perhaps a philanthropist, or a generous person. They may be dedicated to a cause. But that isn’t a heroic gesture. It’s what we all should do – and many of us do; I did so many, many times when I ran my own business – give back to the community through a tithe or a donation. Thank you for your contribution to a good cause, thank you for your generosity, but I balk at calling you a hero for merely opening your wallet.

Let’s not let the media continue to trivialize real heroes. Save the term for those men and women who deserve it.

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