What it takes to be a hero

What makes a hero in our modern age? Who do we see as heroes today?

Are heroes the cloaked superheroes of the avengers’ franchise, who have extraordinary skills- such as making themselves invincible or displaying incredible strength? Or is a hero someone like the mysterious and courageous James Bond, who saves thousands of innocent people from the evil and perilous plans of a Russian billionaire?

Such heroes have strengths beyond our imagining; none of us will be able to scale the side of a building like Spider-man, lift a truck like Iron Man or sashay into a casino and defend the honour of the woman we love by killing everyone in one fell swoop. Though they are entertaining, these examples of heroism are fiction. They are more reflections of what we wish we could do, if we were living in an alternate reality.

Heroes in history

To understand why we have come to see heroes in this way, we might turn back to our old friend History. The first thing to note is that (historical) heroes have always straddled the boundary between the human and the superhuman.

The blueprint for heroes really began with Greek mythical figures like Achilles and Odysseus. They had powers beyond the human, which they used to overcome unimaginable challenges, but who were nevertheless depicted like normal men, both mortal and god-like at the same time. This is similar to how superhero avengers’ characters, like Peter Parker in Spiderman, are painted as just ‘ordinary’ human beings with ordinary desires to be loved and to love.

Real life heroes

But to really understand what being a ‘hero’ means in our current society, we should strip back the capes, masks and invisibility cloaks. Instead, we might think of heroes as those who undertake every-day acts of kindness helping others. At its essence, to be heroic is to be selfless - not the kind of selflessness where there might be an ulterior motive, but the sort of kind act that comes from a very pure place.

A good example of a real-life hero is the recent, very tragic, story about how a young man diedtrying to save a woman, who had fallen off London Bridge into the Thames below. Or, to bring it to the context of the pandemic, the medical staff who saved thousands of lives. These heroes use their everyday human capabilities to do good things for others. And they don’t have to be world-famous to be classed as a ‘hero’- they might be heroes to only a few people who meet them but remain unknown to the wider world. Life, thank goodness, is full of everyday heroes making life in their communities better.

Having said this, we shouldn’t forget those seminal and famous figures, who are heroes because they have managed to create change through their bravery. Who, in standing up and speaking out, dared to move way beyond their comfort zones; such as, for example, Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai.

We should start to think of heroism as a selfless and kind mode of being to aspire towards, forming a ‘heroic’ barrier against selfishness, greed and cruelty. Being a hero therefore is not about being famous, it is about character and integrity.

Starting with a little of bravery and kindness every day, we can all be heroes.

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