A Different Perspective on Heroism
By Jeff Salter
Over-Use and Distortion
First of all: I believe the words ‘hero’ and ‘heroic’ have been over-used and their meanings have been greatly distorted in recent years. In their search for heroes, the media have tried to convince us that it’s heroic every time a kid (legitimately) calls 9-1-1 … or every time a driver pulls off the freeway to help an old lady change her tire. Those are good citizens who did the right things … but they are not truly heroes (in my opinion). And, despite frantic game announcers, every sports figure who makes a clinch play is NOT a ‘hero’ either. I think it’s time to bring that label back to more reasonable perspective.
Literary Versus Real-Life
As everybody here already knows, when we discuss ‘heroes’ in the literary sense, we usually mean the protagonist — whether male or female. And I much prefer that word. Because – as my colleagues, the Four Foxes, point out this week – sometimes the protagonist is flawed, aggressive, possibly cruel … and not necessarily perceptive or empathetic for most of the story.
Next week, I’ll discuss ‘heroines’ (AKA female protagonists) in the literary sense … so tune in again on April 7th to get the complete picture.
But today, instead of literary protagonists, I’ll just talk about real-life heroes.
My Boyhood Heroes
As a young boy, my heroes were the cowboys, soldiers, adventurers, and explorers … who protected the helpless or hopeless, usually fought ‘fair’ (even against greater odds), and faced every danger with consistent courage. I found these heroes in movies, TV shows, books, magazines, and comic books.
I knew they’d win their fights, but I still worried as they struggled against formidable circumstances, elements, misunderstandings, and (of course) bad guys.
A Few Real Heroes
After 9-11, I read about someone who voluntarily stayed in a World Trade Center stairwell with a wheelchair-bound co-worker just so that trapped individual wouldn’t have to die alone.
As the devastating Hurricane Katrina approached the greater New Orleans area, there were doctors and nurses who remained in harm’s way to care for their patients who could not be evacuated from flooded hospitals.
Where I formerly resided, an off-duty firefighter saved a drowning kid … but the firefighter himself drowned during that rescue.
When a guy I knew from Church (at that same city) saw a woman jump off a high bridge into the Red River, he raced to the scene and dove in to help rescue her.
My son-in-law dove into a local lake to rescue a six-year-old girl on training skis who was being dragged underwater by the 50-foot rope … while the driver was trying to stop the boat.
I’ve read of countless military men who sacrificed their own lives to save their buddies … not because they were ordered to, but because it was their instinct.
I have the honor of knowing a man who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and won a Silver Star for going into enemy territory – under direct fire – to rescue his badly injured lieutenant … and then went BACK to that same area to save another man.
“No, I Was Not a Hero …”
One of the most truly inspiring individuals I’ve ever studied was Maj. Richard Winters, of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. [Some of you will recognize him as the prominent figure in the book and mini-series, Band of Brothers. In an interview segment, Winters read part of a letter he’d received from Sergeant Mike Ranney: “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No … but I served in a company of heroes’.” From the context (and from Winters’ emotional voice), it’s clear that Winters’ answer would have been about the same as Ranney’s — “No, I was not a hero …”
Winters (and Ranney) add significant ingredients to the qualities of true heroism: modesty and humility. [Winters died a few months ago.]
Other Kinds of Heroes
These people (above) are among my heroes. But there are other kinds of heroes.
Decades ago when I commuted to college, nearly every morning I’d see, walking in the opposite direction, an old man who was obviously on his way to work. It was several miles to town from that vicinity, and I saw him frequently. I’m sure he walked it every day. I never met him and don’t know his name, but that old man walked along the highway to get to a job which might have been all that supported his family. In my mind, he was a hero.
Long ago, I saw a quote (by a prominent writer) which said (I’m sorry I have to paraphrase): “The true hero is the husband/father who drags himself to work for 10,000 days to a crummy job he hates … just to provide for his family.” [Of course, the same could be said for a wife/mother.]
So, that gives you an idea of how I view heroes. Who stands out as a hero in YOUR experiences?
Next Thursday: The Hound reveals what makes his female protagonists ‘tick’ (or … ‘How the Hound Views His Own Fictional Heroines’).