Different Levels of Heroism

Cú Chulainn. Art by Katie.

Recently I presented a new theory of heroism (short version here). The idea is that the uniting characteristic of all types of heroes is their ability to inspire others—not just whether they take big risks in doing so.

One of my readers, Calluna, wrote a great response that shows why this kind of heroism is so valuable:

“I think the idea of broadening the definition and introducing levels of heroism is smart. If I can only jump from hero Level 0 to Level 10, and… Level 10 is unachievable, I’m likely to give it much less thought than if I can progress up from Level 0 to Level 1, and maybe some day Level 5 or 6, even knowing that Level 10 is highly unlikely.

“If I train every day, for my entire life, I will probably never ever be Cú Chulainn-awesome at ANY thing (and certainly not all things, in the true Cú Chulainn-awesome sense). George Washington Carver-Awesome seems more likely–still unlikely, but closer, so that I can actually reach towards it. At the very least, maybe I can be Grandfather-Awesome. And then maybe someday someone I’ve done good for will be trying to be Calluna-Awesome, whether that be Hero Level 0.5 or Hero Level 5, whatever I can manage.

“We have to start from somewhere, and most of us can’t start at 10. I probably won’t bother with pursuing 10, to tell you the honest truth. But if there is an attainable Level 1, I’m much more likely to put serious thought and consideration into it. And who knows. Once I climb some levels, trying for 10 will seem more reasonable.”

Calluna raises several important points here:

  1. There’s a big gulf between taking a huge risk to help others and not being heroic at all. If the only people we can regard as the least bit heroic are all the way across that gulf, then heroism is inaccessible. It’s too far away for any of us to realistically be heroes-in-training.
  2. Her heroic imagination is actually more driven by the “low level” heroes like her grandfather.
  3. Treating her grandfather as a hero isn’t at odds with understanding high level risk-taking heroism. To the contrary, the low-level heroes are what get her thinking about chasing high level heroism at all.

This is a very different way of looking at heroism than evaluating the amount of risk involved. Instead it focuses on the net impact of a role model’s actions on the people around them. And often, it’s the small but impressive acts that get us wrangling with our own moral compass.