A woman runs into a burning building to save a stranger trapped inside. A soldier rushes toward an enemy machine gun nest that has some of his comrades-in-arms pinned down. An emergency medical technician wades into rising floodwaters to reach someone who is having a panic-induced heart attack.
These are just a few of the endless examples of obvious heroic action. Yet these are just the tip of this particular human behavior iceberg. We may not think about this on a regular basis, but there are degrees of heroism we attribute to others. Heroism is not limited to moments of physical danger or combat.
What about the person who acts contrary to the opinions of their family to help people of a marginalized group, like the homeless? The man who stands up against a powerful institution to fight for the rights of workers, even though his reputation could be crushed? The woman who takes on what others mock as a “hopeless cause” because people are being harmed by the poisonous products of a negligent company?
Yes, there is the heroism that involves great physical deeds and possible self-sacrifice on the battlefield or on a city street by those we train to protect and serve. Yet heroic action is not limited to moments of immediate crisis and split-second decisions to save another’s life. There is also heroism that is thoughtful, considered, and plays out over time. There is also everyday heroism, exhibited on a daily basis in countless ways.
Heroism doesn’t have to be just an action. It can be a mindset. A way of life.
Heroism Is Altruistic Risk
At a fundamental level, heroism is altruistic risk. When you put yourself in the way of harm, or potential harm, to help others. Again, the risk doesn’t have to be physical, and it doesn’t have to be immediate. Your words or actions in defense of others may draw anger or disapproval toward yourself. You may make a new enemy when protecting someone else. You may limit yourself in some way. Perhaps speaking out against a spiteful colleague at work causes them to try and sabotage your career advancement.
Regardless of the source of risk, when we act to help others despite the possible threats to ourselves, that is heroic action. Indeed, we may sometimes act “instinctually” and jump to someone’s defense without taking time to think. But beyond the “subconscious reaction” form of heroism is the conscious, mindful use of altruistic actions. It is possible—and, I argue, necessary—for us to train ourselves to regularly emulate heroic behaviors. It’s no accident that civilizations have been training people to do this for millennia through heroic myth.
Heroism Is Resilience
Though heroism is primarily about altruistic risk, there is another facet to it. Think of how often we consider others who display great determination in overcoming obstacles to be heroic. A hero must have a “strong will” or “spirit” in order to help others.
Heroes are persistent in their efforts, and they don’t easily give up in the face of adversity. They may waver, have moments of doubt, or even abandon the quest for a time. But, as the great heroic myths show us time and again, they eventually tap into the wellspring of resilience within and return to the battle.
Resilience can be considered “personal heroism.” It is the development of internal resources that enable us to persevere through difficult times and events. Whether you call it grit, “stick-to-it-iveness” or something else, it is the result of overcoming one’s “internal foes” of self-doubt, self-sabotage, and fear.
Take the recent example of the late Chadwick Boseman, the man who starred as Black Panther in the Marvel movies. While enduring the pain of cancer treatment, he continued to work, campaign against inequality, and visit sick children in the hospital. All the while, he breathed no public word of his own struggles. For his selflessness, altruism, his display of grace despite his suffering, speaking out against injustice despite the possible consequences for his career, and setting a positive example for others, Boseman has been dubbed a real-life hero.
Ultimately, just like Chadwick, we are all human. If heroism is helping your fellow humans despite the risks, then to train yourself to be more resilient—and therefore increase your ability to help others—can also be heroic.
To be a hero to others, you must often be a hero to yourself first.
Heroism Is Human
Every one of us has the capacity for heroism.
Let’s set aside the label “hero” for a moment because that’s a value judgment placed upon people by the rest of society. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with appearing heroic. Ironically, as depicted in myth and literature, anyone who calls themselves a hero is, inevitably, actually the villain.
Rather, the focus should be on emulating the traits of heroism. Propagating heroic behaviors across society is the point, and has been the purpose behind the countless heroic stories we have created for millennia.
Heroism is part of the human legacy. We all have the potential to serve others in times of need, despite the risks to ourselves. We have attempted to explain and explore the roots of heroic behavior through the arts and sciences, an exploration that continues to this day.
But perhaps the fact that we can, and do, act heroically is enough. Heroism is an embodiment of our fundamental desire to help others. It is our capacity for empathy made manifest. It is the continual reaffirmation of our highest ideals. Heroes set the perennial example of the best human beings can be.
Heroism is the eternal quest to be “better” that we all face. It encompasses those human traits we consider most noble. It requires us to know ourselves and to also know and serve others. It is an art and a science. It is a versatile philosophy and a practical tool.
Perhaps most importantly for our times, heroism allows us to transcend the self-imposed isolation and insularity of tribalism. It is an antidote to hopelessness.
Heroism is a path that brings human beings together. It’s up to each of us to make the choice to walk it.
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