Monthly Archives: November 2012

What it means to be a Hero

I have been thinking about the word “hero” lately.

One reason is because of Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, two ex-Navy Seals who died defending people trapped in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Woods may have even disobeyed orders to “stand down” and lost his life to do what he believed to be right.

Woods and Doherty’s actions have brought the word “hero” to the fore of my consciousness because as a writer, I take words seriously. I listen for how they are used, abused and overused.

Take “warrior,” for example. It is a word that is so overused in sports that it is a mockery. A professional basketball player being paid millions of dollars sprains his ankle and gets hauled to the locker room, arms draped over two teammate’s shoulders. Minutes later, ankle taped, he limps back onto the court. The fans explode with applause. Inevitably, the play-by-play announcer clears his throat and speaks with the reverence of a TV preacher at prayer as the color commentator nods like an enraptured worshiper: “What a warrior.”

No, I do not think so.

A competitor? Okay.

A tough guy?

When discussing basketball players, who in comparison to football players are wimps, “tough guy” is questionable, but I can live with it.

But a “warrior?”

Lay that on the combat veteran Marine living down the street and see what reaction you get.

“Hero” is another word that gets tossed around in sports for all the wrong reasons. I cite the downfall of every formerly revered steroid juiced jock, Lance Armstrong et al and leave it to fans as to whether the term “hero” has been abused as much as drugs.

Mark Twain said we admire heroes “for great qualities which we ourselves lack.” Yet I wonder if “non” heroes lack such qualities or just have not been called to exercise them. Or maybe they have and nobody noticed.

Woods and Doherty, like many in the military, were athletic. Woods a high school wrestler, Doherty a trainer at SEALFIT, a fitness company run by former Navy Seals.  They were classic heroes. Men of action, distinguished courage and ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities. After all, how many of us, if given an order that takes us out of harm’s way and abrogates us from responsibility, would disobey and risk our life?

Maybe more than we think.

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo was recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal on what makes a hero. “The decision to act heroically,” he said, “is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in our lives. It means not being afraid of what others might think. It means not being afraid of the fallout for ourselves. It means not being afraid of putting our necks on the line.” Woods and Doherty serve as dramatic examples of such heroism.

But there is a phrase within Zimbardo’s quote that we may glide past as we focus on “not being afraid” and “putting our necks on the line.” He says “the decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called to make.”

Many of us.  

In my mind, unlike “warrior” in sports, “hero” is a word which we do not apply as often as we should because we associate it with magnificent acts of courage like Woods and Doherty’s.

But what about the guy who tells his son that he will work overtime at his dead end factory job until the day they drag him out so the boy can go to college? I have a friend whose dad told him exactly that.

Not being afraid of the fallout for ourselves.

Or the stocky, 40-year old Mexican immigrant, who lugs around children’s early reader books, faithfully attends his tutoring classes for English after putting in a long day at his blue collar job, covering his face in embarrassment as he erases and corrects his homework, all because he “wants to make a better life for my family.”

Not being afraid of what others might think.

Or the woman who takes a stand on lightning rod political and social issues, knowing it will provoke condemnation from those who oppose her. Knowing some of those people are family and friends, the very folks whose opinions and approval she values most. Knowing she risks being cast out from that treasured group. Yet, she takes her stand.

Not being afraid of putting our necks on the line.

Twain, a supreme observer of the human condition, noted that “one can be a hero to other folk, and in a vague sort of way understand it, or at least believe it, but that a person can really be a hero to a near and familiar friend is a thing which no hero has ever been yet to realize, I am sure.”

For most heroes there are no cheering crowds or pontificating announcers to proclaim their deeds. But it is that deafening silence and lack of recognition that make two honest-to-God warriors like Woods and Doherty all the more heroic. In a different way it also applies to the factory worker, the Mexican immigrant and the principled woman. Disregarding orders to “stand down” they have done what they believe to be right, unafraid of the fallout, what others may think and willing to put it all on the line.

That is what heroes do. It is not so rare. Look some place other than the game on your television. Heroes abound. There may be one closer than you think.

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