Unmasking Heroism – What Actually Makes A Hero?

What if I tell you that you are born with heroic abilities and you just don’t know it yet? Woah, that sounds like an infomercial.


When we talk about heroes, the first things that come to mind are images of noble men with capes and tight costumes, and swords. Aside from these fiction-based superheroes, we see acts of heroism existing in the real world – and they are personified by brave men and women disguised in camouflage uniforms or bunker gears, fighting the earth’s villains in different forms for justice, peace, and safety of humanity, as well as natural altruists leaping in front of bullets or jumping onto the subway tracks to save a stranger’s life.


Then it got me into thinking – what actually makes a hero? Is there a minimum number of people to be saved, and villains to be fought? Do you have to put one leg six feet under? Why do people strive to be one? Is it for the ego? Or the better question is, what concept of heroism are we trying to replicate?


Let’s define heroism. The most popular search engine simply defined it as “great bravery.” In an 2011 article entitled “What Makes A Hero”, Philip Zambardo, a Psychology professor at Standford University says that the key to heroism is a concern to defend a moral cause for people in need despite the knowledge of a personal risk, and it is done without expectation of reward. How sweet.


But there exists a problem with heroism, or rather the way people perceive heroism according to Olivia Efthimiou of Heroism Science. She says, “the common conception of heroism, which is more of an exaggerated ideal, is juxtaposed against ‘ordinary’ reality.” The attention is now focused on the heights humans can achieve. People love to celebrate the best of human nature and honor the individuals who possess noble, moral, and god-like traits.


Is there something wrong with this? Nothing – and everything, because while heroism is becoming a heavily dramatized concept, the true, subtle acts of heroism are blurring into reality. People fail to acknowledge that heroism isn’t something out there or something acquired by a few selected, extraordinary people, but something that is innate in all of us. In fact, most of us are already on hero’s journeys.


Let me tell you about two stories of heroism.


In January 2015, an entire nation mourned over the loss of 44 soldiers who fought against several armed groups in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The death of the “Fallen 44” in the hands of the rebels and terrorists left their families with nothing but anguish. The only reason that lifted the families’ spirits was the fact that their loved ones – their father, son, or husband – have died with dignity as modern heroes.


Then there is this man who claims he’s no hero, yet he longed to be.


The idea of heroism amuses the man. He dreamed of pursuing a career in firefighting, saving citizens from burning buildings, or becoming a brave soldier fighting for peace. He believed these jobs will take him closer to his vision – to become a hero. He didn’t want to exist, earn, and cease to exist. He wanted to have a purpose and aimed to change and save lives.


However, seeing these astonishing fantasies come to life is barely possible for a feeble, crippled man like him. His walking stick has witnessed the youthful years he had lost yet he’s still far from becoming the hero he yearned to be. The “least” he can do is to be his family’s personal hero by working using his functional senses instead of resting at home and educate other differently abled personalities to do arts and crafts for a living.


Then, his son got sick. His son badly needed a kidney transplant. Without further ado, the man unconditionally donated one his kidneys to his son regardless of the cost to himself. No cameras were rolling. The world didn’t celebrate him.


So which story depicts true heroism?


Apart from the fact that the first one is based on a true event while the other is fiction, they only differ in circumstances but their deeds are both heroic. The story about the fallen soldiers depicted what seems to be a “grand” act of heroism – to endanger one’s life on behalf of the masses. Though we can try to argue that it is in their job descriptions to serve and protect the country, their sacrifices are undoubtedly remarkable. The media honored their acts of valor and celebrated their bittersweet victory.


But we should also acknowledge the small subtleties that are slowly becoming lost in the celebratory fanfare of celebrity culture. The second story manifested what they call the subtle acts of nobility – the everyday acts of generosity and the willingness to put oneself at risk unconditionally for the sake of another person.


The crippled man, the “anti-hero” of the story who genuinely gave a huge chunk of what he had, reminds people a lot of people – single parents who deprive themselves of their personal needs to send their children to school, adult children who put their careers on hold to personally take care of their sick and old parents, and those who choose to donate a piece of them to extend the life of the other. Aren’t these silent acts heroic? They, too, can be considered heroes. Anyone can be considered heroes.


Heroism in its truest form.

Heroism is something deeply complex. But one thing is for sure – it is innate in us. The innate thirst for doing good yet uncomfortable is intervowen with our bodies, hearts, and minds. It has always been there. And in a world dominated by abuse, injustice, and discrimination, and is begging for people with genuine intentions, we need to open our eyes to the subtle and the unseen and unleash that innate heroic characters.

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