Just what is a hero?

Today the word hero is in danger of losing its meaning because of overuse and commercialization. Now the term is more about marketing and flattery than anything heroic. I believe heroism requires personal risk and an act of courage in the interest of others. It is more than someone simply doing his or her job competently, even in the face of difficulty. With this ideal in mind, I aim to highlight some young heroes worth reading about.

Before doing any actual acclaiming of young heroes, perhaps a little explaining is called for. The logical place to begin might be the definition of the word hero, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves what the word is supposed to mean. The Dictionary.com definition below is representative of various dictionaries (for female heroes, sometimes called heroines, substitute the appropriate pronouns).

he•ro [heer-oh]
1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
3. the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.

In our modern media-driven culture heroes are called on to do much more than just inspire. They now also sell, promote, reward, preach, teach, motivate, and recruit. Without them, the economy probably could not function. As might be imagined, to satisfy the incessant demand for new heroes, standards have been lowered and the word itself has largely lost its meaning through overuse.

Plug the word heroes into an online search engine and you’ll be hard pressed to find a usage that remotely approaches the definition. What turns up is endless commentary on a TV series and the marketing of movies, games, and music. Perhaps the truest remaining popular use of the word is in reference to comic book superheroes.

Most politicians today have rightly lost their media hero status, but hero inflation among other celebrity types still abounds. Actors, singers, sports stars, entrepreneurs, and even some criminals are routinely lauded as heroes. But lack of fame is not necessarily a barrier to herodom. The hero designation has trickled down to the masses in a big way and is now a feel-good term for whole groups being commended wholesale. The term has been degraded to the point where it serves as the verbal equivalent of a gold star. In schools children who reach reading goals have become reading heroes. Firefighters and the disabled have become heroes. The last of the World War One veterans received hero medals and recognition because . . . well, because they were the last living members of their group. The brutal conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been made more palatable by referring to virtually all serving soldiers as heroes. Companies and businesses routinely honor efficient employees as heroes. The list goes on and on.

While the dictionary definition allows some latitude, I have always considered heroism to require more of a person than simply carrying out his or her job, even if this job is difficult or dangerous. It requires actually doing something, not having something happen to you. I say this as someone who served as an infantryman in Vietnam. And nowhere in the definition do I see the proviso that lets fame or wealth convey hero status.

My intent is not to diminish the accomplishments and hardships borne by members of these groups. I simply believe a blanket hero designation serves no one. There are certainly heroes deserving of recognition among all the above groups, but like grade inflation, when everyone in a class receives an A, how is extraordinary achievement, or remarkable effort to be recognized?

No website confab is going to reverse the hero overuse syndrome. But like a tiny oasis in a vast desert, a dialogue can serve as a watering hole for the thirsty. News items about youth problems and young offenders are abundant, but outside the sports page, counterbalancing positive stories are in short supply. My aim is to serve as such an oasis by collecting and highlighting young heroes through the remembrances of readers and people I encounter.


Just what is a hero? — 1 Comment

  1. When one can accomplish something -against all odds- the atmosphere of ‘hero’ begins to grow. But one must question whether ‘luck’ is the culprit that achieved the daunting challenge. When one leads a mass of people to a positive end [Martin LuherKing comes to mind] the label ‘hero’ wraps around the individual, but one must questin whether personal frustration an convictions was the ‘culprit’ that pushed him to speak [like Osama Bin Laden]. ‘Hero’ is an emotional subjective title. Today, Andy Kempker, age 34, is my ‘hero’ because he’s taking off a month of work to ‘be there’when Frank arrives home [after4mos of rehab]with a cane and wheelchair and speech issues,so his 6’7″ frame can keep his Dad stable while he acclimates to their home and resumes 3day/wk to/from rehab at their local hospital. Granted,Andy is single and lives with his folks, but this is taking such a load off Joyce who has to continue to work so they have insurance coverage. Like I said, heroism isemotional and subjective.

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