Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Bob Forbes

It is becoming as easy to locate a so-called hero as it is to find a McDonalds.  In fact, all one has to do is donate a pint of blood to receive a “Hero” sticker that can be proudly worn for the day.  A consequence of tagging so many as heroes is that the term itself is losing its intended impact.

While no two people will likely agree on the definition of heroism or a heroic act, some common characteristics consistently percolate to the top of lists: courage, selflessness, humility, compassion, empathy, a strong moral compass, and certain skills for the task at hand. 

People offer various reasons as to why society has come to overuse the term “Hero”.  Three developments, both relatively new and others well established, are submitted here as illustrations.


Today we find ourselves in a cultural/political milieu that is a distinct departure from anything experienced in decades.  Political/cultural camps are at least as polarized as they were in the seminal year of 1968, during the Viet Nam era.  Too, the 24-hour news cycle, coupled with so many new ways to communicate can leave us feeling emotionally on overload.  And no matter the news source, it is easy to get the sense that cruelty is being normalized, even legitimized. 

In times of perceived upheaval we tend to look even more emphatically to our leaders for answers.  If they do not provide distinct leadership, we cast a wider swath – sometimes desperately – seeking those who may be capable of providing solutions.  Or, at least claim to do so. 

Couple these developments with the effect that the IT revolution’s proliferation of information has had as an impact on society.  Ironically, despite all of the entrées to information we are experiencing shorter attention spans, thus losing the ability to concentrate.  We are receiving so much information so quickly that it is impossible to absorb much of it.

By day’s end is it any wonder we frequently feel beleaguered?  In our search for new heroes our enthusiastic desperation ends up branding too many people as heroes too easily. 


When we think of inclusion, we frequently consider the strides America has attempted toward racial, economic and gender equality, etc.  This is a correct moral direction for a democracy.

A more recent type of inclusion has led to such actions as everyone in a grade school class receiving an award for participation.  Such inclusion may be a good thing, designed to increase a child’s confidence and self-esteem.  It is a worthy attempt at leveling the playing field, taking the sting out of the distinction between winners and losers in our competitive society.  Sociologists, psychologists and economists will need to continue to analyze the viability of this approach over the long run, as youngsters reach adulthood and face the marketplace, where not everyone is rewarded for completing a project, say nothing of performing a heroic act.

Another example of how inclusion has translated into an interesting result: every member of the military, law enforcement and other first responders is increasingly being referred to as a hero.  No intent here to denigrate the exceptional contribution each of these individuals make in their communities and society.  We can be grateful there are such special, dedicated people willing to risk everything.

But here’s the rub: not all these people are heroes because they are willing to make these oftentimes tremendous sacrifices.  Some are called upon to accomplish unbelievably heroic feats, but not all.  Among the armed forces, those doing clerical work or refueling a jet fighter – while making a significant contribution toward our national security – do not a hero make. 

Myth & Our Heroes

Our American mythological heroes serve a purpose by providing inspiration.  Such stories are often presented where a reluctant hero-in-the-making embarks on the classic “Hero’s Journey” overcoming supreme tests, finally passing the ultimate ordeal and saving society.  But not all our heroes have worn capes like today’s cinematic ones.

Think of our numerous books or movies about the settling of the western frontier.  Within this setting, an iconic American hero is the consummate outsider, working hard to bring law and order where civilization has not yet found a home.  The embodiment of the rugged individualist, he is often cast as using methods of the outlaw to fight outlaws. Think John Wayne, whose usual solution to a problem was to either punch or shoot someone.

While such legends are engaging and inspirational, credit should be given where it is due.  Real everyday heroes tended to be strugglers.  The American west was civilized by farmers, ranchers, miners, lumbermen and merchants who worked hard, sacrificing diligently, rearing their families while attempting to better their lot.

Myth has unquestionably played an important role in our shared American identity.  Though not always as entertaining or exciting as myth, reality can certainly be as inspirational.  So, let us take encouragement from, but not believe too deeply in our own myths.  Reality and true heroism are worth distinguishing.

            * * * *

While real heroism isn’t always revered by society, there are ample real life heroes.  We can bring up the names of the great ones along with our personal favorites that have climbed the hill before them, displaying the courage required.  And we also have unsung heroes like single mothers holding down two jobs, putting both bread on the table and instilling values that will make their kids contributing adults.  Or, recall the selfless caregiver that has sacrificed a career to care for a loved one.

Most of us would like to think we would rise to the occasion if called upon to perform a heroic act, one that takes on risk and required sacrifice.  We all wonder what we’d do if found in a situation like Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, the airline pilot who landed US Airways #1549 in the Hudson River, saving all 155 lives.  We’d like to think we know what we would do but we really don’t know.

Ernest Hemingway’s famous definition of courage is acting with “grace under pressure.”  Even more poignant from former U.S. Attorney General, Ramsey Clark: “It’s doing the right thing when it’s frightening and hurts.”  Maybe being a hero is ultimately a choice.

We Americans often think of ourselves as a special people, heroic by virtue that we as a people have it in us that it is not beyond us.  Is it our enthusiasm of wanting to do the right thing that gets us carried away with calling so many of our brethren “heroes”?

Next time we see a blood drive announcement imploring us to “Be a Hero, Give Blood” we should certainly do so.  But it would serve us well to consider that we should not count simple human decency or just doing the right thing, as a form of heroism.

Finally, sometimes deciphering whether a heroic act has taken place or not, takes both intellectual honesty and a step back from whatever one’s political beliefs might be.  Try this one:  Did Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Kavanaugh Hearings qualify her as a hero, or at least, was it a heroic act? 

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