Heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,
and extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
Some years ago, as a teacher, I held a class in which I asked some young people to explain who were their heroes. A surprising number of these kids argued passionately that their parents or older siblings were heroes because of their tireless work to help family and others in their immediate community. While it may seem easy to dismiss such an insular view, I actually think that a child’s perspective can be quite profound. They saw past the cliché and recognised that being a hero doesn’t require fighting, wearing a cape or being a crime fighter. They instinctively understood a more universal human truth:
Heroes are those who act sacrificially for the betterment and welfare of those within our extended human family.
Children, it might be argued, see heroism (as they see many things) in its most simplistic form. Ethicist Peter Singer explores how humans, as social animals, initially see their world as family and kinfolk, and then expand their awareness of, and empathy for, others, in an expanding circle of ethics and altriusm. Perhaps heroes are those who can see this circle at its broadest.
Heroes can be first responders, scientists, and medical workers. They can be life rights activists and environmental activists. Ordinary or marginalised people can become heroes, including those whose contribution is often overlooked. Heroes can be teachers in Grimsby, UK and Kasese Humanist School in Uganda, or students in Ontario, Chicago and Mingora (Pakistan). The list is almost endless.
It has even been suggested that a folklorist whose exploration of the literary Hero’s Journey across time and culture (expanding upon the Hero Pattern to which I have referred in a recent blog post) is himself a hero.
To have heroes is to be human. My personal heroes include scientists and astronauts who inspire us to aim for new discoveries and knowledge; and artists, musicians and authors who stimulate our imaginations and challenge us to catch their visions for intellectual, aesthetic or social betterment. My human rights heroes include refugees and refugee activists around the world, who battle incredible adversity in their lives and who often face indifference or bigotry from others.
Another hero of mine is a personal friend, a Holocaust survivor, and a tireless worker for human rights and humanist ideals. Her decades of activism are as much a testimony to her principles as are the recollections within her autobiography, in which she summarises the noblest of heroic motivations in a world beset with problems: “Love lights this place up. Without love, it would be dark and cold here.” (The Testimony, Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2012, p. 200).
Why do we have heroes? Heroes provide an optimal human template. While dictionary definitions vary as much as cultural stereotypes, heroes are ubiquitous, so it seems that the heroic essence is an ineffable human quality within us all, most obviously involving altruism but also extending beyond that into what psychologist Philip Zimbardo explores as heroic imagination. Both individually and collectively, we align our inspiration, aspiration and perspiration towards our heroes and the values they represent.
I would suggest the following as a preliminary list of values to which humanist heroes align:
Heroes take lemons and make lemonade. They work to bring the best results out of bad circumstances and human weaknesses. Even our symbolic cultural superheroes are flawed: Achilles forgot to wear protective footwear; Pandora was overly curious; Superman had his kryptonite. Despite whatever difficulties they experience, real-life heroes aspire to be the best people that they can be, and they create opportunities for others to do the same. Heroes are role models and mentors because they lead by example.
Heroes are activists who intervene to change a course of events. This is perhaps why many people are attracted to the nobility of heroism while simultaneously being resistant to its personal cost: heroes make the sacrifices that are necessary in order to change the world. Do we dare to join them?
Heroes inspire our cultures and mythologies. Some of my own earliest childhood memories include the excitement of Thunderbirds, a popular 1960s children’s puppet television series in which the heroes of International Rescue saved people from all kinds of disasters. Thunderbirds may have introduced many youngsters to the humanist concept of offering practical, hands-on help to others because we have the capacity and responsibility to do so.
Heroes have the potential to help not only others but also themselves. Peter Singer suggests that altruism and benevolent actions enrich the giver as well as the recipient: ‘For millennia, wise people have said that doing good things brings fulfillment’ (The Life You Can Save, New York: Random House, 2009, p. 171). Heroes change people’s lives – including their own.
Being a hero is more than doing a good deed; it is a lifestyle choice. The most radical challenge of heroism is that it ultimately moves beyond the individual, and redefines being human as a collective and communal experience – a noble aspiration for animals such as ourselves who form communities. While some people seek the existential meaning of life, heroes live it, demonstrating that our noblest legacy is to leave behind a world that is better for our having been in it.
Everyone can be a hero – if we have the courage to change ourselves and our world.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn