Heroism isn’t about victory, writes Travis Gasper. It’s about a will to survive.
The first crack in my world appeared when I awoke to the sound of sobbing. It wasn’t my brothers; at 5 I was already familiar with their nasal wailings. My mother usually only cried out of frustration at our behavior, and it was too early in the morning for that.
It was my father.
Up until that point, I didn’t even know men cried. I assumed tears were something boys would grow out of—like diapers or pacifiers. I was scared.
My dad gathered us together in our playroom to break the news. My mother had died in her sleep. We would find out later that it was from an undetectable heart complication; a time-bomb hole hidden from any X-ray or test. She was 29 years old. My father was 30.
Life that year destabilized at a dizzying speed. My father had started his own business and needed to travel. My two brothers and I walked home from school to an empty house. Dad would arrive home in time to order pizza for dinner and watch MacGyver with us. He was unpredictable. His depression was visible in two forms: intense silence or incredible fury. I was learning to read and Hop on Pop became my instant favorite. It was my first experience of literature giving voice to something inside of me I thought was unnameable.
“Dad is sad.
Very, very sad.
He had a bad day. What a day Dad had!”
A month after my mother’s death, we were all tested for existing heart conditions. My brothers and I thought it was great. We were wired to machines just like Captain Power and held a contest to see who could last the longest on the treadmill. At the end of the day, we didn’t show signs or symptoms and could continue being the wild, broken boys we had become. It was my father who had to undergo further testing. The doctor clearly recognized all the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Dad’s bad day ended with the prognosis that he would be wheelchair-bound within the year.
My father’s heart was dust. He had nothing more to give. Then, underneath all the wreckage, something new began to beat. It was a surge of pure, unadulterated will-to-live. It was resilience.
It is interesting to follow the depictions of heroes in popular culture. Even our most invincible heroes (from Superman of the 50’s to Steven Seagal of the 90’s) exhibit weaknesses that can be exploited for their eventual destruction. Our heroes bleed like us. They exist in the same gray moral jams as us. They are entrenched in the same muck of human desire and emotional motivation. Sometimes they make wrong choices. Just like us.
So why are we continually sucked into the narrative of the hero? It’s not just the escapist pleasure found in good triumphing over evil; if it were, why would we all be subjecting ourselves to the existential horror and hollow victories present in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, or graphic novels like Watchmen? We must crave more than escapism. We want our heroes (even superheroes) to be broken like us because we want to see them fight. Whether they win or lose is no longer relevant because deep down we know that this is as much a matter of fate, chance, gods, etc. as it is their character. Instead, we celebrate the fighting spirit. We desire resilience.
We identify with Odysseus, Philip Marlowe, and John McClane not because of their strength, but because of their will to survive. This is why McClane’s bleeding feet, exhausted cussing, and mistaken use of C4 were so essential to the success of Die Hard. As we watch him struggle to survive against the odds, it resonates with our own will-to-live. We lean forward in our seats, willing him to get up, pull the glass out of his feet, save his wife and defeat the terrorists. We are caught up in his struggle, not the inevitable victory. Hans Gruber’s death at the end comes across as a congratulatory concession, almost as if the movie owes it to McClane (and us) due to the unbeatable human spirit on display.
William Faulkner saw resilience playing a crucial part in the immortality of man. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1949, he said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
What makes a man a hero is not his physical strength or infallible morality. It is his ability to exist in the midst of shit circumstances. It is to look at unbeatable odds and say, “I can survive this.” Not “beat this.” Survive.
A hero is someone who can step forward into the heart of darkness and still muster compassion for a fellow human being. A hero can realistically look at their circumstances, think, “I don’t have a chance,” and then take another step forward.
Heroes surround us.
My father’s first steps forward were barely perceptible. He sprawled out on the couch and watched Spaceballs with us. He turned off all the lights in the house and pretended to be a monster, absorbing our heroic deathblows with ease. He punished us for fighting and asked forgiveness when his anger would flare up. He cooked, did laundry, helped with homework, grew his business, ordered more pizza, played videogames with us and occasionally cried. When we asked about Mom, he met our painful questions with blunt honesty. There were never easy answers. But we still managed to laugh.
After a year, he met with his doctor. The new battery of tests left the doctor flabbergasted. The MS symptoms had vanished. He knew it couldn’t be a misdiagnosis, not with how strong the symptoms had been.
My father left the office relieved and confused. Then he straightened his shoulders and refocused on the task at hand. The miracle was important for only one reason.
He had to raise his boys.
Check out the rest of our “Men and Heroism” section.
The “Men and Heroism” section was run and edited by Dave Kaiser.
—Photo Misha Japaridze/AP