What Makes a Hero?

Posted on May 18, 2011


          The definition of what exactly a hero is has become obscure in these modern times. In the latter part of the twentieth century, a hero was easily defined and recognizable-someone who carried out a selfless act of great enormity. Today, the question of what makes a hero isn’t as simple to answer. While people debate and come to their own conclusions, undeserving individuals are earning the sacred title as those who actually merit it, don’t. Despite all the controversy however, one thing can be said for certain about what makes a hero; they all have one common trait that sets a valuable example for our society: selflessness.

            Any person can be brave and stand up for what they believe in, but only when selflessness is thrown in can they really be dubbed heroic. Often times the seemingly heroic actions of an individual are actually all for personal gain. For example, in the late 1970’s, the leaders of the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua promised money and land for the poor after overthrowing President Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Instead, after obtaining power, they took up residence in the former dictator’s luxurious compounds, while leaving the poor, poor.

            The overthrow of President Somoza might have been heroic on some level, but it was a poor example of heroism at best. In the words of Howard Zinn, author of “Unsung Heroes,” it is our “misguided values that have made slaveholders, Indian killers, and militarists the heroes of our history books…” Since people tend to notice the more grandiose actions of these histrionic individuals, actual selfless acts of valor go unnoticed. Zinn asserts that “it is only necessary to remember the unremembered heroes of the past, and to look around us for the unnoticed heroes of the present.” The unfortunate flaw in most societies however, is that subtlety is often taken for granted when it comes to acts of reform.

            Subtle heroes range in their subtlety. There are those who make big changes in peoples’ lives, but will never be recognized nationally or internationally. These are furtive heroes-only known by those who christened them as such. An example that comes to mind is an old friend. I met her in a time of great crisis in my life, and she helped me in ways I never would have imagined possible. She changed how I thought about life and people and even managed to revolutionize my personality; I went from being cold and distant and looking down on others to compassionate and considerate. Yet despite how she changed my life, she might never be recognized at an international or national level. Then there are the ostentatious heroes-making immense alterations to the order of things without violence and propaganda, but with humble words of wisdom. Both might be very different in how they carry out their actions, but why they carry them out-because of selflessness-is what makes them important. Without these influential individuals, people would stay the same. When something isn’t working (current social standards, government policies), heroes point out these flaws and call for change.

            Yet even the most subtle heroes have their faults. That being said, what would be the point of celebrating anybody as a hero? Would it be better to just congratulate them on their feat and leave it at that? Not in the least. Heroes, no matter what their flaws may be, must be honored. As Hampton Sides, author of “Shattered Faith,” put it, “…all heroes and saints are imperfect-even the greatest ones.” If all enactors of valor were scrutinized and kept in the dark because of their flaws, there wouldn’t be anything for people to model themselves after; there would be no reforms on any level of society. Abraham Lincoln, for example, had his flaws; he would have been in favor of slavery if it meant avoiding war with the south. Though he went on to enact a policy that eventually freed the slaves and reunited our country; not to honor him for that would essentially be giving the impression that Americans were ungrateful to have America .

            Hidden behind all of the achievements of both the subtle and pretentious heroes are the semi-heroes. These are the individuals who did not make a change in their lifetime or during their time of glory, but set forth in motion an eventual transformation in the order of things. President Susilo Yudhoyono of Indonesia , in an article written for Time magazine, emphasizes that “even if they fail, their determination lives on for others to follow.” Prime examples of this would be the leaders of the civil rights movements during the 1960’s; the Jewish people after World War II, striving to create their own nation, as well as the creation of the United Nations to make a more peaceful world. Though one might ask, if they failed, why should they be celebrated as heroes? Why not instead those who actually made the change? As Yudhoyono put it, “the glory lies not in the achievement, but in the sacrifice.” Heroes, no matter whether they’re larger than life or only known by a few, are an invaluable asset to the social order. “Every society needs heroes,” Yudhoyono writes. These selfless beings shine in the dark past, blossom in the dull present, and lead the way to a better future.

Posted in: Essays