Do We Need Heroes?

In response to my last posting, my friend John P. said “bah humbug” (or something similar) to the idea of heroes. He sez that heroes are overrated, etc. I did some checking online and see that Scott LaBarge, Santa Clara University ethics scholar, writes that we need heroes because they define the limits of our aspirations. I believe his idea is that heroes expand our sense of what’s possible for us humans.

I take issue with John. Heroes can symbolize a group. For example, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and John Adams are American heroes. We catch in them glimpses of the immortal, the virtues we’d like to emulate—the courage, intellect, sense of destiny, vision, and personal sacrifice that we look up to. Yes, it’s a matter of record that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. As repugnant as that is, most people put that aside and look to their positive qualities, just as they breeze past the womanizing of JFK and MLK Jr. to laud the positive qualities of those two extraordinary men.

Nevertheless, we expect to find in those we seek to emulate a nobility of character. Our heroes should have the characteristics we value most—courage, self-sacrifice, compassion for the weakest among us. We look at them and we see what bravery looks like—Sergeant York, Audie Murphy; what self-sacrifice and compassion look like—Mother Teresa, the 9/11 rescuers. When we think of them, our souls are lifted up. We speak their names in reverent tones and think that perhaps if I were in such a situation, I’d behave heroically. Beyond that sudden emergency that demands instant action, many heroes simply keep on keeping on—perseverance. Food and shelter for the helpless, visiting the prisoners or going to the elementary school classroom every week to help a kid understand math—all persevering actions. But this modeling of exceptional sacrifice bolsters us. We see the double amputees in military uniform and know that they committed themselves to military service with the foreknowledge that an extreme sacrifice might be required of them. They are heroes by virtue of their commitment.

Can you or I be heroes? Yes, perhaps only a hero to a small group of people, or perhaps to one person; e.g., my son gives of his time on a regular basis to provide a male role model for a fatherless boy. That qualifies him as a hero, in my book. Is that necessary? I remind you about statistics I quoted in an earlier posting that an overwhelming percentage of men in our prisons did not have a dad—a male role model—in their home, engaged in their lives.

I haven’t defined what a hero is because all of you reading this will have your own definition. However, we could say that a hero is one who’s performed extraordinary sacrifices for the benefit of others. No question but that heroes impact society. Perhaps for no other reason than that they inspire us.

One last point I’d like to make: the reminder that celebrities and heroes are not the same. This is not to say that celebrities can’t be heroes, or heroes celebrities. A recent poll re heroes and heroism revealed that a depressing number of those polled named someone on American Idol as their hero. They don’t have a clue. Another recent aberration involved people—apparently those with no sense of history—who wore tee-shirts with the likeness of Che Guevara. That guy was nothing but a murdering cutthroat. He ordered the execution of as many as 550 people without trial when he ran the La Cabaña Fortress prison. Later, he tried to incite the people of Bolivia to rebel against their government, fortunately with little success. Known as a revolutionary (why should that be heroic?), he was killed by the Bolivian army with his rag-tag band of thugs. The point being that because someone is a celebrity in some quarters should not justify making them out to be a hero.

So—who are your heroes? Or do you think the idea of heroes is overblown?


About samuelehall

A follower of Jesus, husband, father of 3 adult children, writer and learner.
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5 Responses to Do We Need Heroes?

  1. I saw a headline “Hollywood Hero Lost in Kayak” about Russell Crowe and I thought of you. If nothing else, it brought a smile.

  2. Further discussion of heroes.

    I spent six years in the Navy, almost 1/10th of my life to date, over four years overseas in and around Vietnam, with a couple of days in the Red Sea staring at Russian warships in another war called Yom Kippur. I got to watch the US lose the Vietnam War on April 25, 1975, as we took on board what was left of our Vietnamese friends. I spent two years by myself (professionally) trying to keep a sabatoged computer operational, sometimes building computer boards out of spare parts because we didn’t have the right supplies. Was I a hero?

    Better question to ask: Did I want to be there? No. I was drafted by the Marines and joined the Navy one week before my induction because the Air Force waiting list was too long to save me. Was I a coward?

    I don’t think I was either. I lived with the cards dealt me and did my job the best I could. I never once was called a hero or a coward. I was called a bunch of other names, none worth listing here.

    The most heroic thing I almost did was refuse to throw garbage off the back of the ship on our first day out at sea because I thought it was wrong to polute the ocean. I was quietly told that if I didn’t throw the garbage over the side, I would be confined, tried, subject to a dishonorable discharge, and returned to the US in disgrace. I had a wife and a son on the way. Maybe I could have refused if I was single, but not under those circumstances. So, I threw it. Was I a hero or a coward?

    My point is that heroes are very personal. When everyone is a hero, no one is. When so many groups (police, firefighters, military, politicans) are given that status simply for existing, or so many anti-heroes (as you pointed out in your last paragraph) are elevated to hero status, it defuses the real heroes and renders the word meaningless.

    I have heroes. They are individuals, not groups. They are heroes for some specific reason, not for simply existing. And they mean something to me.

    • samuelehall says:

      Excellent, John! Thanks for sharing your experiences. I cannot say whether you were a hero but you may have been a hero to some people; what you did involved personal self-sacrifice for the good of others.
      Your wanting to be there has little to do with heroic actions. The Apostle Paul didn’t want to be imprisoned but heroic actions came out of his confinement. Likewise with Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship.
      I agree–not everyone who puts on a uniform deserves hero status. But a significant commitment–to service of country or community–is implicit in the very fact of choosing to enter a term of service.
      Life is full of ambiguities and your garbage detail gives a graphic example. However, that load of garbage probably amounted to pollution = to whenever I sneeze into the atmosphere. Yes, it’s the principle involved but we can wear ourselves out trying to slice life into neat blocks of black and white.

  3. Steve Kilpatrick says:

    Well written Mr. Hall! When I was a high school wrestler (45 years ago), Dan Gable, an Iowa State wrestling legend, enticed me to work harder to maximize my skills. Heroic efforts by famous and not-so-famous husbands and fathers have prodded me on to be a better man. Heroes of the faith have challenged me to want more of God and attempt more for God. I have appreciated different heroes – none perfect and none an idol to me – but great men and women who inspired me. Rather than mope about because of what I am not, these heroes (old and new) still encourage me to press on to become better than I am.

    • samuelehall says:

      Good to hear from you, Steve. Yes, I remember Dan Gable–not that I ever met him but I recall that he defeated our guy in his weight class (177?) every time. A terrific competitor.
      But what you say gives further reason to look to heroes in our lives. Perhaps some of them would be surprised that we gave them such status but it’s amazing the impact that a consistent life can have on others.

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