What Do You Mean by Hero?
Recently I’ve had some great conversations that helped me really understand what a hero is. I have to offer special thanks to Shanna Mann and Niki Whiting for pushing me to define what I’ve been talking about all this time. Here is my definition of a hero:
A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help strangers.
That definition is loaded, so let me unpack it.
Extraordinary personal risk means they put themselves in actual danger. If they aren’t risking their lives they’re risking their careers, their freedom or serious injury. People who risk things they can afford to lose aren’t heroes.
Helping strangers is different than just helping people you know. Most people are willing to make sacrifices to help a family member, but that’s different than laying down your life for a total stranger. If you have a personal stake in helping someone, you might be a great friend or a great son—but not a hero.
[Edited to add: after more reader discussion, I would change “to help strangers” to “to help others with no personal gain from doing so.”]
It’s important to add that you need both sides of this. If you take big risks only for people you know, you’re a loyal friend but not a hero. (The fact that they may call you their hero is still sweet, though.) If you help total strangers but only when there’s no risk, you’re a good citizen—but still not a hero.
Extraordinary personal risk + helping strangers = heroic.
I’m Not a Hero
This is a strict definition. It means it’s hard for someone to be a hero. That’s exactly as it should be: heroes are rare individuals. If we call everyone who does something nice a “hero” then the word starts to lose its meaning.
(I should point out here that I am not a hero. I’m building my life toward that goal, but make no claims to have reached it.)
I shared this definition with my mother last night and she said something deeply insightful: Most people are afraid to live heroically. The average person wants to be comfortable, safe, and have some fun with their friends and family. If they have food and shelter they may become very interested in paths of self-development, but probably not in taking huge risks.
When speaking about the heroic life, the most common response I get goes like this:
“I think teachers are heroes.”
“I think parents are heroes.”
“I think you can be a hero by doing little things for the people around you.”
I used to have a hard time responding to this because I really have a deep respect for parents, teachers, and people who do charity work or help their neighbors. Likewise for artists, fellow nonprofit workers, and all the other noble professions I’ve heard called heroes.
I don’t want to be the dick who tells people they’re not heroes.
But the more people gave me this response, the more I began to see where it comes from: fear. This is the response of someone who looks at the risk and danger an actual hero faces and backs away.
It’s a lot easier to say you’re already a hero than it is to go out and fight some dragons—or admit that you never could.
The Hero And the Citizen
When someone says that parents are heroes, or that making small differences is heroic, what they’re really saying is we don’t have to go out and save the entire world to do something amazing. And you know what? I totally agree.
Parents, doctors, artists, healers, activists, volunteers, and children who support their parents all do incredibly amazing work that should never be underestimated. So do people in numerous other capacities. They may not be heroes, but they can still be recognized as amazing in their own right.
This is something true heroes know, and a true hero never regards the rest of the world with arrogance or scorn. It’s okay that most people are scared to take the risks that the hero takes. Most people shouldn’t take those risks, and the hero takes them because they feel most alive when they adventure.
Everyone has a purpose, after all.
What do you think of this definition of a hero? Your comments have helped to shape my views and understand what I really mean when I talk about this stuff. Is this definition too strict? Is it right or wrong to view heroes as exceedingly rare? Do you think there’s a heroic trait not covered by this description? Post a comment and speak up.
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