Maybe on impulse he rushed into a burning building to save a child. Or she stayed behind to take care of the wounded and because of her they all survived. Persistent courage and the refusal to give up. Standing up to an enemy, speaking out when no one else dares to, defending someone at great risk to oneself. This, generally, defines a hero.
And once so defined, the person becomes mythological. No human being can live up to a myth. The baseball hero is revealed to have taken payoffs. The civil rights hero was a womanizer. The athlete who beat cancer and rode to victory was doped to the gills and organized a conspiracy of lies to cover it up. The great author is a homophobe. The famed humanitarian has had a string of sordid affairs.
And we are all so shocked and disappointed. How could our hero do that?
Because doing one great thing wonderfully right does not guarantee that all the other choices this person makes are virtuous.
The rhetoric tells us that every soldier is a hero. Yet, some of those heroes are guilty of bullying and raping their fellow soldiers. Because someone chose to enlist in the military does not mean they will never cheat on their income taxes or their wives. It doesn’t exempt them from cruel and sadistic behavior. Enduring the hell of combat (or sitting out the conflict in an office) is not a golden certificate of human perfection.
All heroes are flawed. All heroes are human, all too human. Just because they did one thing gloriously right does not mean they can do nothing wrong. So we should not be so harsh on our heroes and snort in outrage when they prove vulnerable to all the weaknesses the rest of us are.
So shall we bring our heroes down to earth again? Speak of “everyday heroes”, teachers and firefighters and policemen, spreading the word so thin that we aren’t really sure what it means anymore? Labeling the “everyday” with a term for the exceptional contradicts itself into nonsense. In our attempts to be inclusive, we beggar the tribute we are trying to bestow.
All of us fumble through life, making choices. We try to do the right thing, the smart thing, that which will bring happiness. By good fortune we embrace a course that is wonderfully right, and get called “hero”, get hoisted up onto the pedestal where we blink happily and feel good, only to then make a disastrously wrong choice and get thrashed into oblivion.
Society craves heroes and paragons (and conversely, villains as well). So we leap upon candidates for the role, blind to the fact that we are dealing in romance, in half-truths and distorted perceptions. We want black and white. Evil people are never kind, never act out of love. Great people never stoop to sins of the flesh.
That fellow who ran into the burning building to rescue the child? Don’t call him a hero. Call his act heroic. And when it turns out that he has been arrested repeatedly for drunk driving, call that reprehensible. But he is still the same person, rough-cut like all of us, his behavior a pattern of peaks and valleys.
Choices, actions, beliefs can be heroic or horrific. But for the most part people are people, neither heroes nor villains, but some mix of the two, more of one or the other depending on circumstance. Praise them when they do good, call them on it when they behave badly, but remember we’ve all been there at one time or another. Only in mythology are there truly heroes.