Human culture has always celebrated elevated concepts of “the hero” and heroism. From ancient myth to modern media, we have always sought to identify some special quality in a small, select group of individuals whom we imagine are somehow separate (better) than the common man.
While researching the topic of heroes and heroism for this assignment, I wrestled (heroically!) with my own ambivalence regarding the concept as it’s applied in modern culture. Earlier Western cultures shared a common definition of hero and heroism that focused on extraordinary individuals responding in extraordinary ways to extraordinary circumstances. Other cultures around the world in historical times played on this same riff. Heroes (predominantly male) are made of different stuff than common folk, whether due to their lineage (Hercules’ father was a god) or through some special quest.
In modern times, the word hero has, to an extent, been democratized (and in my opinion, trivialized). Now we celebrate almost anyone who engages in the slightest act of apparent altruism, of public service or an unanticipated response to a challenging situation.
In part, I think this might be a response to the predictability and routine of our mundane 9-to-5 lives. Believing that we are offered few opportunities to exhibit what we perceive to be extraordinary qualities in our own lives, we celebrate and elevate others just like us, insisting that their personalities must contain some special “stuff” that sets them apart.
In fact, I believe we are all capable of such extraordinary performances, when presented with extraordinary circumstances. By insisting that our heroes must have some unique character trait that energizes and directs their heroic behaviour, we let ourselves off the hook to exhibit those traits ourselves. It’s a way to minimize society’s expectations about our own response to tragedy, life challenges and invitations to adventure.
The challenge, as I see it, is to acknowledge our own capacity for a heroic response to life, moment by moment.
“We can be heroes, just for one day.”
– David Bowie
Resist the compulsion to keep your head down, to avoid being noticed, to allow your perception of the opinions of others to compromise your natural, compassionate response to others’ circumstances.
I’m not suggesting that we should run around looking for burning buildings to rush into. The criteria for personal heroism is personal. For some people, the simple act of making eye contact with a stranger can feel heroic. Tossing a five dollar bill into a beggar’s cup probably isn’t a heroic act, but inviting that same beggar into a nearby fast food outlet and spending that five dollars on coffee and a muffin might be.
Our culture’s definition of heroism does have one important defining aspect. The hero isn’t trying to be a hero. They just are. They’re not looking for the acknowledgement of others. In the moment, they’re just doing the right thing.
We must challenge ourselves daily to recognize opportunities to rise above the mediocre. To allow our natural compassionate human response to be expressed. To connect with life around us and not be a spectator in our own lives.
The candle’s flame is not diminished by lighting another candle.
I guarantee that if you cultivate the habit of compassion, your life will improve. Stress will become more manageable. You’ll sleep better at night. You’ll smile more often. Your inner critic might shut the fuck up (or at least be quieter and easier to ignore).
Acknowledge your inner greatness, because you’re awesome, if only you would allow it.
In my next post, I want to explore the social pressures that conspire to shut down this natural compassionate response, how to recognize them and how to resist and respond to them. There are many ways to change the world and our experience in it. Celebrating our shared humanity is one way to make a difference that’s available to all of us.