What makes a “hero?”

The author ponders whether she is one, and takes a hard look at these times

It seems to me that since Sept. 11, and perhaps much prior to Sept. 11, perhaps since the beginning of time, we have used the term “hero” too lightly.

When I worked for the American Red Cross in New York City after Sept. 11, the office gave me a child’s drawing that was meant to present to volunteers, such as myself. It says on it, “Dear Heroes.” This was the one they gave me, and so I accepted it in the right spirit, but I did say to them, “I am no hero.” They kept insisting that I was. I just happened to be proficient in mental health work, as I am a social worker and a psychoanalyst. I felt a desire to help the city that gave me my education The firefighters rushed in to save people in the Twin Towers were doing the job they were trained to do, as were the policemen, the doctors and so on. Would I call that brave? Yes, but why do we have to have “heroes?”

McCain, Obama—are they heroes?

This is probably not the right time to talk about the recently buried U.S. Sen. John McCain, but of course, that is precisely why I have to do so. He went to war. I do not believe in war. Do I think he handled himself with honor and courage? Yes. But still, what makes him a hero? What makes anyone a hero? Definitions run roughly the same: someone who demonstrates bravery or courage; someone who saves lives. Does that make someone who signs up to kill people a hero? I don’t know. I do not believe in war, but I have been a student of human nature too long not to understand why we have them.

I might say that the Obama family was courageous for withstanding the latent and not-so-latent racism they endured for eight years in the White House. I, and so many others, were afraid that President Obama would be assassinated. Is he a hero? That I cannot say any more than I can say McCain was a hero.

I guess I must confess that I do not believe in heroes any more than I believe in war. I can only admire the courage that certain people are able to show under adverse conditions. We are all made of the same stuff. Are people fleeing certain death from persecution heroes? The Holocaust survivors that I have known personally do not consider themselves heroes. They consider themselves lucky to have lived. Many soldiers who returned from Vietnam felt the same. And then they all went about pulling themselves up from the destruction of their shattered lives. Simply put, that is what we do. Of course, not everyone is strong enough to make it back from war or devastation. Does that make those individuals less than heroes?

A desperate want for heroes

Personally, I think the reason that John McCain is being eulogized in such a “heroic” image is because our current political circus in America leaves us in desperate want of a hero, and the good old-fashioned kind of hero, a Spider Man, Captain America, Batman, someone straight out of Marvel. It is interesting to note that these “heroes” are not completely human. They have special characteristics that make them stronger, better than human.

Honestly, I see the need and the sense in reaching beyond what is human. Like McCain and Obama, we are all flawed. And I do fear that making people “heroes” is the opposite side and at the other end of making people inferior. Somehow it seems to me to smack of the same substance.

Heroic acts, but not heroes

Perhaps this is one of my flaws; that I do not see people as heroes. Anything is possible, and I might be completely lacking in my understanding. After all, perhaps I only feel that there are heroic acts, but not heroes. When we make human beings into heroes, they have a long, long way to fall when they fail. They will fail at something eventually. We all do. We are merely mortal.



Subscribe To My Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest news and updates about book talks and other literary events. Be the first to find out!

You have Successfully Subscribed!