(This essay is brought to you by David Cooper, who gave me the book Heroes by Paul Johnson to read – not that I had nothing else to read. He followed that up by saying, “I’d like to see your list of heroes, and their qualifications” – not that I had nothing else to do. Without quibbling, here it is.)
Looking back to my childhood, I do not think that I was really given to the sort of hero-worship that children often are. I suppose that hindsight may be myopic due to the many experiences of our lives, but as best I can remember, the word hero was never very prominent in my vocabulary. Certainly, I viewed my parents and grandparents as exemplars of character qualities and values that I intended to emulate, but I am not sure that I would ever have categorized them as heroes. In at least my early days, I suppose the word “Hero” evoked a certain sense of perfection in my mind that no human being was really likely to be able to achieve.
My father was a hard-working auto mechanic who was almost never actually “off the clock”. He came home every weeknight (and Saturday at noon), changed out of his uniform, cleaned as much of the grease off his hands as he could and enjoyed a meal. Then he would head out to the carport or a neighbor’s house to work on other cars. From him, I learned the value of being committed to one’s vocation, but I don’t know that any part of that was “heroic”. Ironically, the closest he ever came to inspiring that word was the day he visited us on the ball field, asked to take a look at my bat, crushed one pitch far off the playground, and headed back to the carport. We were in awe. My mother is much harder to classify in that way, though she certainly had heroic qualities. Her entire life, she wrestled with inner demons that robbed her of much of the enjoyment she should have experienced. I also struggle with the idea that it can be possible to consider heroic anyone who has committed suicide, yet it is possible that her struggle against such feelings for so long is an aspect of heroism.
My grandfathers were both farmers, who taught me the value of patience and hard work, and I suppose they were both somewhat heroic in their ability to withstand life’s vagaries with equanimity. My Grandpa Brinker did it with quiet resolve, while my Grandpa Woody did it with good humor. Their capacity for endurance was somewhat heroic, but certainly not in an operatic sense. As the years have passed, I think I came to appreciate my Grandma Brinker as the most heroic character in that grouping, because of her incredibly stoic resistance to every difficulty life presented, big or small.
Not surprisingly, many of my early heroes were my teachers. I don’t suppose that, in youth, I had any real idea of the amount of work they actually did, or the struggles they overcame in doing that work, but I was very blessed that many of my instructors were strong individuals who had exceptional qualities with which they showered us. In some other venue I will recount them all, and I cannot honestly say that it was their heroism that motivated me to become a teacher. In fact, I often think that I was much more motivated by my incompetent teachers, because I knew that I could do better.
So, what is a hero? Pondering this led me to several elements that I think heroes often possess.
A hero must overcome some natural or personal fear to accomplish a task that can be considered extraordinary. Natural fears are those that most people would find daunting. They might range from earthquakes to snakes, but most people would agree that there is a logical reason to fear them. Because of this, we might recognize the difference between short-term heroes, like those who rush into a burning building to save lives, and long-term heroes, those who suffer great pains to endure extended trials. Personal fears are more difficult to detect, because we often do not realize the extreme to which some people suffer internally, or we see their distress manifest in ways we do not appreciate. (Short-temper, curmudgeonliness, etc.) Sometimes the accomplishment is to simply act in a way that is unexpected, and that in itself becomes extraordinary. We fully expect people to rant and rave under certain circumstances, yet some folks persevere quietly in those times, achieving success we did not anticipate. I believe there is usually some sort of threat associated with this aspect, whether it be the danger of falling rocks, or the danger of aggravating a particularly punitive boss.
I think heroes should exemplify some particularly human quality that makes us proud of our species. Their behavior makes us wish to be a better version of ourselves, and thus a better person. Seeing their ability to overcome the pettiness of daily living helps us imagine we can elevate the human condition. They offer us a glimpse into the possibilities of what humans can become, and we are ennobled by that.
Ironically, given the above, another characteristic is that heroes do not often apply that title to themselves. They seldom see anything so grand in their behavior, because they have usually done what they felt came naturally. Nothing is more common than the war hero who exclaims, “I just did what any of the guys would have done.” What makes the incident stand out to the rest of us is that we are not sure what we would have done under those circumstances, but we doubt that we would have been able to respond heroically.
The hero should, as David says, “have suffered in the cause of truth.” Sometimes, this can only be ascertained long after the fact. Many times we are surrounded by heroes whose value we do not fully appreciate until much later. Truth is often a definition difficult to perfect. What seems to be truth today may not hold up under the advance of science and society. Truth-sufferers frequently go to their graves thinking that they have been ignored, repudiated, or even reviled. Their redemption comes only when the rest of the world catches up to their vision. In some ways, this may be the greatest heroism of all. The ability to pursue with certainty a truth that others do not, cannot, or will not share is not only heroism, it is a uniquely lonely path to trod.
Finally, I think a hero usually confronts a “crisis point”. There comes a moment when they must cross a boundary that forces them to make a life-defining choice. “This is the decision by which all my future choices will be measured,” they must think. We all cross our own Rubicons, and must live with the consequences, whatever they may be.
Can one become a true hero simply by persevering on a long and steady course? In the end, I must believe so. To hold unwavering standards in the face of grinding opposition requires a form of personal courage that sometimes seems in short supply. In fact, you will note in my list some folks for whom that characteristic was their primary strength.
If pressed to do so, I could probably write a paper on each of the following individuals, but I have no intention to be Paul Johnson at this point, so I only present a bit of information about some of the people I consider to be heroes.
Ludwig van Beethoven has always been an individual I hold in high esteem. His heroism comes in many forms. His music has always seemed to me to be “perfect”, in that it flows most logically from note to note and theme to theme. Knowing his struggles to create such music brings forth the layers of his heroism. Who else could take such simple melodic themes (e.g. Moonlight Sonata, Symphony V…) and develop them into timeless representations of emotion? Who else would erase and rewrite simple passages numerous times to get each one exactly right? Who else would dedicate a magnificent symphony to the greatest popular hero of the age (even naming it Eroica), then change the dedication when that man failed to live up to his personal definition of a hero? Who else would dare to cross the boundary between Classicism and Romanticism without fear of popular rejection? Such a man writes music the way a woman gives birth: the struggle and pain are only made bearable by the joy of creation. Add to all that his eventual deafness, a crisis only an impossibly capricious (and incomprehensibly internecine) God could conceive, and his final compositions cannot be viewed as anything but heroic. It is well known that many of his fellow citizens saw Beethoven as difficult, grouchy, and argumentative, yet who else has created anything as beautiful as his Symphony IX while working under such an inhibition? I, for one, am willing to forgive him his emotional outbursts.
Jerry West is another individual to whom I would assign the title “Hero”, and one who has recently demonstrated even more qualification for that title. Naturally, any West Virginia boy who was even vaguely interested in sports during the glorious period that encompassed Jerry’s college and professional career would have idolized this favorite son. All that he had done was what we so desperately desired to do, and it was well-known that he had essentially achieved it all through incredibly hard work. Many of us willingly spent hours shooting hoops in the hope that, as it did for Jerry, the practice might someday translate into statewide fame and national fortune. For most of us, it never got anywhere close to that, but we could at least dream. More importantly, the class and humility with which he accepted his accolades and accomplishments never wavered from the solid WV values he learned as a child. It didn’t matter that we were not accomplishing those things, he was accomplishing them, and he was just like us. Lately we discovered the abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his father, and our admiration for him was renewed. (Most athletes see their public presence diminish once their career is over.) Not only had he done what he did, he had done it under the specter of his father’s drunken anger. His heroism had not expanded, but our understanding of the conditions under which he made his achievements increased. He was even greater than we realized.
Abraham Lincoln belongs on my short-list of heroic figures. I remember as a child reading an excellent biography of George Washington that my father had. I felt a strong admiration for the accomplishments of the man, but generally found it difficult to relate to him as a person. Lincoln is nearly the opposite. His achievements can be difficult to understand qualitatively, but his methods in accomplishing them are surely heroic. Naturally, many would consider him a hero because of the assassination that took his life, but I think his life to that point had already secured him an elevated position. Self-educated, highly-intelligent, personable, trustworthy, and trusting (to a fault) – Lincoln was in many ways the ultimate exemplar of American character. Raising himself from the meanest beginnings to the Presidency, there is no hint of his ever having done a single improper thing. (This could only be more remarkable if he were a politician in today’s world.) The hidden Lincoln (at least from a popular viewpoint) was that he was wracked with self-doubt and beset by personal fears of an extraordinary nature. Many of us would be (and many people are) incapacitated by such troubles, yet Lincoln not only overcame them, he raised himself to the level of hero in spite of them. His refusal to let the Union disintegrate required strength of character few could have foreseen in such a simple man, yet he shaped the future of an entire nation.
Robert E. Lee is a military figure I find to be truly heroic. Though that may seem contradictory to my previous choice, I think he clearly fits my definitions. Torn between duty to his country and duty to his locality, he chose those closest to him and thus ends up, historically, on the losing side. Once again, a man is forced to make a life-altering choice presented by forces far beyond his powers of control, yet Lee followed the principles by which he had lived his entire life. As such, he is an exemplar to us for every athlete who has ever played on a losing team, or who found the odds so stacked against him as to make competition seem futile. Lee fought hard but honorably, did his level best to succeed despite limited resources, and maintained a dignity that allows him to continue to be a hero even to his enemies. This is an incredibly difficult line to walk successfully, yet Lee managed to do so, and to do it heroically.
I could certainly go on much longer, but that would require more time than I can devote, and I might actually have to do some research, which would defeat one of the basic precepts of this essay. I am sure that many more examples will come to mind, and maybe a future essay will assess the extent to which I believe I fulfill the qualifications outlined in the beginning (thus violating one of them).