Sunday, January 23, 2011 | Categories: Michael's Essays
What does it mean to be a "hero"? In this week's essay, Michael tries to answer that question.
There was a celebration this week in York Region, a suburb of Toronto.
The good burghers there surpassed their United Way target and raised more than $8-million - 5.6 per cent higher than last year.
The newspaper report of their success referred to them as heroes. Actually the head of the United Way upgraded them to super heroes.
Wonderful as their achievement was, are they really heroes?
In the aftermath of the horrific death and massive funeral of a young Toronto police officer, I've been thinking about the word hero, how commonplace it has become and how its meaning has been transformed by its ubiquity.
The classic hero, from Greek times on, was one person charged by fate to create an act of singular courage in an often vain attempt to overcome a great existential threat.
In the trying, the hero often sacrificed his life.
And by the way, I'm including heroine as well; Joan of Arc is a great heroic figure to me.
How do we define modern heroism and who are today's heroes?
For example, we throw around the phrase "unsung hero" a lot; but can somebody be a hero without some kind of public validation?
We are surrounded by heroes. There are Hollywood heroes, sports heroes, comic book superheroes and supposedly ordinary everyday heroes going about their ordinary everyday business.
The single mother struggling to raise a family in obscurity and borderline poverty is certainly a heroine to her family. But that doesn't make her sacrifice heroic. Or does it?
The term usually applies to acts of great bravery in war. Which raises questions about bravery itself. Is every soldier a hero simply by joing an armed force or engaging in combat? That would make heroism more of a job description than a single act of courage.
In Ontario, the route from Trenton to Toronto along which the coffins of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan are borne has been officially named by Government as the Highway of Heroes.
Which means that every Canadian solider killed in that war is a hero, no matter how he or she died.
The American novelist John Barth once wrote : "THE HERO IS NO BRAVER THAN AN ORDINARY MAN, BUT HE IS BRAVER FIVE MINUTES LONGER."
Is a person automatically a hero because of the job he or she undertakes?
Are cops, firefighters, paramedics automatically heroic because at some point they may knowingly volunteer to put themselves in harm's way?
Michael Korda, the American writer, has published a new biography of T.E. Lawrence which he calls, simply, Hero.
In his introduction, he writes the following: "WE HAVE BECOME USED TO THINKING OF HEROISM AS SOMETHING THAT SIMPLY HAPPENS TO PEOPLE; INDEED THE WORD HAS BEEN IN A SENSE CHEAPENED BY THE MODERN HABIT OF CALLING ANYBODY EXPOSED TO ANY KIND OF DANGER WHETHER VOLUNTARILY OR NOT, A HERO.
EVEN THOSE WHO DIE IN TERRORIST ATTACKS AND HAVE HAD THE BAD LUCK TO BE IN THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME ARE DESCRIBED AS HEROES."
Now true heroism, to my mind, has to contain an element of sacrifice. The true hero must confront destiny when the odds against success or survival are overwhelming.
One of my heroes is Father Maxmillian Kolbe. In 1941, this young Polish priest offered to take the place of a man condemned to death in Auschwitz. He was later murdered by the Nazis.
Clearly someone who surrenders his or her life to save another is a hero.
But was every firefighter who ran into the Twin Towers on 9/11 a hero or just the ones who died? Is death an integral part of heroism?
Heroes and heroines walk among us. But they are very special people.
Said Will Rogers: "WE CAN'T ALL BE HEROES BECAUSE SOMEBODY HAS TO SIT ON THE CURB AND CLAP AS THEY GO BY."
At bottom, I think if everybody is a hero, nobody is.