Human beings are deeply divided, eternally
torn between apathy and activity, between nihilism and belief.
In this short life, we wage a daily battle between a higher
and a lower self. The hero stands for our higher self. To get
through life and permit the higher self to prevail we depend
on public models of excellence, bravery, and goodness. During
the last forty years in America, such models have been in short
Except among politicians and Madison Avenue advertising firms,
the word hero
has been out of fashion since the late
1960s as a term to describe past or present public figures.
We have been reluctant to use it this way, doubtful as to any
one person can hold up under the burden of such as word. After
the September 11 terrorist attacks, hero
was used to
describe the firefighters and police offers who picked their
way through the rubble, passengers who thwarted terrorists on
a hijacked airplane, and soldiers who left on planes and ships.
In difficult times, we turn to the word hero
our deepest sorrow, our highest aspiration, and our most profound
At the start of the twenty-first century, America was forced
to question some of the attitudes of an antiheroic age: irony,
cynicism, preoccupation with celebrities and sex, disdain for
political leaders, and indifference to soldiers. "Times
of terror are times of heroism, " said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
America's new war has reminded us of one kind of heroism, the
brave deed, and of one kind of hero
, the rescuer. My
hope is that it will also encourage us to become more interested
in past and present public heroes and that it will revive the
qualities of admiration, gratitude, and awe too long absent
from our culture.
In America today, we have come to define the person by the flaw:
Thomas Jefferson is the president with the slave mistress, Einstein
the scientist who mistreated his wife, Mozart the careless genius
who liked to talk dirty. These definitions lodge in our minds-especially
if they relate to sex-and become the first and sometimes the
only thing we remember. As a society, we need to explore a more
subtle, complex definition of the word hero
for an information age, one that acknowledges weaknesses as
well as strengths, failures as well as successes-but, at the
same time, one that does not set the bar too low.
The definition of hero remains subjective. What is
extraordinary can be debated. Courage is in the eye of the
beholder. Greatness of soul is elusive. Inevitably there will
be debates over how many and what kinds of flaws a person
can have and still be considered heroic.We are fearful that
heroes might be illusory, falsely elevated by early death
or good spin doctors or the vagaries of history. The twentieth
century taught us well that leaders once thought heroes can
turn out to be tyrants. And the tacit assumption that a hero
is supposed to be perfect has made many Americans turn away
from the word-and the concept-altogether. The contemporary
preference for words like role model and mentor
and the shift from the recognition of national to local heroes
are part of the transformation of the word hero that
occurred in the second half of the twentieth century.
There is something appealing about a society that admires
a range of accomplishments, that celebrates as many people
as possible, that looks beyond statues of generals on horseback
for its heroes. Making hero more democratic, however,
can be carried to an extreme. It can strip the word of all
sense of the extraordinary. It can lead to an ignorance of
history, a repudiation of genius, and an extreme egalitarianism
disdainful of high culture and unappreciative of excellence.
We need role models and mentors and local heroes, but by limiting
our heroes to people we know, we restrict our aspirations.
Public heroes-or imperfect people of extraordinary achievement,
courage and greatness of soul whose reach is wider than our
own-teach us to push beyond ourselves and our neighborhoods
in search of models of excellence. They enlarge our imagination,
teach us to think big, and expand our sense of the possible.
-Peter H. Gibbon