In a recent New York Times crossword I found the clue ‘Rescuer’ and it had me stumped for most of the puzzle. A four letter answer was required and it started with the letter H. Finally solving the other words forced me to see it was HERO. I spent the rest of that afternoon thinking about what a hero is to me.
Words are fascinating in that they require a definition. Discovering the meaning of a word can be tricky depending on context within a sentence, the tone of voice of the speaker, grammatical origins and even body language can be an important criterion for understanding. My first thought regarding the word Hero was not concerning rescuing, although I see it now. Perhaps it is because almost everyone these days is referred to as a hero. The term is so ubiquitous that it reminds me of the trend to present a Participation Award to anyone who shows up for an event.
If I was rescued from certain death I might refer to my saviour as a hero whether they be male or female (the feminized word heroine is simply awful). From childhood onward, people who have done heroic deeds have enthralled me. Boys of my age would have read tales of knights rescuing damsels, of sheriffs bringing justice to the American west, of explorers sailing the seven seas, or of ball players making baseball diamonds sparkle with their talent. As I got older my definition of an act of heroism became more philosophical and broader in scope to include those who challenged the status quo. These ‘idea heroes’ may not have been active in a physical sense, but their abstract thinking made them stand apart from the crowd.
Hero is an overused word and doesn’t belong with every expression of gratitude. Confusing fame or institutional power with heroism gets me in a bit of an anxious knot. Comic book heroes won’t save us. Some modern songs suggest we crave, even worship, the idea of a personal hero. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWcASV2sey0
Media personalities are often over quoted merely due to their celebrity. I wonder why the military profession is automatically tagged as being heroic. I’m not even sure bravery is a prerequisite for being a hero; determination certainly, and a sense of selflessness but most rescuers report they didn’t feel courageous at the time of the call for help.
I believe extraordinary constructive behaviour is heroic. Citizens who make an unselfish contribution to their communities are heroic. I would label some Olympic level athletes heroes just as I would someone who has devoted their life to an artistic passion. Folks might begin their personal list of heroes with Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, or Linus Pauling. Pick a professional discipline, set some criteria, define parameters and let the list making begin! The debate might get heated determining which of those named are either Noteworthy, Great, or Truly Heroic. Be prepared to be convinced when someone asserts, “My dad is my hero.”