Saturday, August 15, 2015

Who is a hero these days?

Recently, I've given much thought as to what defines a hero, or even heroic actions.  I suppose the subject has crossed into my mind due to the national trend of labeling popular culture figures as heroic or courageous.  The national interest in the discussion of courage began this summer when former Olympic champion and reality television star Bruce Jenner announced that he identified as a woman, and wished to be called Caitlyn. 

Many Americans were puzzled by Jenner's transformation, but the issue became controversial when the ESPN sports network decided to give Jenner their annual Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  The award is typically given to someone in the athletic world whose actions or contributions to society somehow transcend sports.  Critics of Jenner derided ESPN's decision to give a sports award to someone who hasn't actively participated in sports for decades.  The anger didn't stop there, however.  Critics were frustrated with the notion that Jenner's decision to become a woman was associated with courage.

The question before society:  what makes an act heroic or courageous?  What criteria exist for such a distinction?  

First, I believe that courage isn't limited to the same set of actions for every person.  Inexorably, courage requires overcoming fear.  The  fears of each individual vary greatly.  Our environment dictates many of our fears, and I would imagine that the evolution of mankind has also created some innate predispositions to fear.

A confrontation with fear is a fundamental component in courage.  To place oneself towards a trajectory with a terrifying situation defies our natural survival instincts.  Many fears stem from a sense of danger — whether real or perceived.  If any of us can override our sense of self-preservation to act in defiance of danger, that is an indicator of inner strength.  

But what can we really say about overriding our fears and acting against our instincts of self-preservation?  In many instances, acting against our instincts is foolish and borders on insanity.  Would we label a person as courageous if they jumped into a freezing lake in the middle of winter?  Of course not.  

Beyond the confrontation of fear, acts of courage must contain an element of selflessness.  When a person acts in such a way as to place their life in danger, it must be for someone other than themselves.  What does an action mean if it is only for selfish gain?  Such activity represents desperation, and not courage.  

The selflessness of a courageous act is inherently coupled with a purpose.   A person can't claim courage or bravery for acting in reckless manner to help someone without purpose.  In most instances, it is the greater purpose that drives us to act courageously.   Emotion and sentiment create the ability within us to place the well-being of others before ourselves.  But without purpose or direction in our deeds, then they ultimately become about ourselves and not about others.  This strips our actions of selflessness and there is no honor or courage in such things.

Moreover, real acts of courage will come at great personal cost.  It is one thing to act selflessly, which will benefit others.  But it is even greater when you know the net effect of your actions causes you pain.  What are you willing to lose for the sake of others?

I'm also convinced now that courage comes from a position of weakness.  Though the heroic act or deed involves a confrontation with fear, that often is, in part, a fear based on the unlikelihood of completing the task.  Maybe it would be more accurate of appropriate to state that danger isn't the only thing we must overcome.  The potential for failure must exist for an act to be courageous, for if anything could be achieved by a large portion of the people, then we would cease to see the awe in the courageous act.  Where would the courage be in overcoming fear if you were certain you would succeed?

The final element of courage requires acting in such a way that works toward moral goodness.  And I suppose many people would claim that goodness is relative.  I disagree.  There are absolutes in this world.  I have neither the time nor inclination to go into great detail about this issue at present, but before we go any further, let me state this:  if you claim there are no absolute truths, then you have just created an absolute truth.  

If one's actions are not rooted in some transcendent form of goodness, of what value are they?  Who is willing to give praise to someone acting in a capacity other than what is good?  I am willing to admit that it often can be difficult to distinguish between good and evil, but that doesn't change the fact that we inherently know that goodness is somehow inextricably linked to acts of courage.

Society wants its heroes.  Society needs heroes.  But are they as common as we would like to believe?  The notion of heroism and courage being so prevalent in society is both true and false at the same time.

The things that society often labels as heroic or courageous are rarely as glorious as we have been led to believe.  Look at the actions of celebrities and politicians.  When these individuals take any stance that places them in the minority, their followers believe that person is brave for "taking a stand."  I believe the reality is that these people are just adopting an unpopular position.  In some instances, they may even be taking an outmoded or unprincipled line of thought in an attempt to justify a personal belief, and someone will suggest that it takes courage to do so.

The Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner transformation is one such example.  The liberal segment of America applauds Jenner for "being who she really is."  However, I don't believe Jenner's actions rise to the level of courage.  While Jenner confronted a fear to change so radically, there are some unanswered questions about this situation.

Why was Jenner so intent on making a spectacle of this transition?  One could argue that an element of selflessness and purpose exists, though.  Maybe Jenner came our in this fashion as an example to others who face a similar struggle.  And if that is true, then a greater purpose exists.  Yet, I don't see these actions as selfless.  Jenner has drawn more attention to herself than necessary for the greater purpose and undoubtedly profited financially from the international media attention.  

The liberals in society are not alone in their false characterization of heroes.  Conservatives are quick to label all members of the military as heroes.  While the term hero applies to many individuals in the armed serves, it's not universal.  Unfortunately, some of our servicemen have been guilty of gross acts of injustice.  For instance, in 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, several members of our armed forces tortured and humiliated captives at the Abu Ghraib prison.  Would we characterize these actions as heroic?  Not at all.  Even if I were willing to admit these actions were necessary in conflict, that would not make them heroic or courageous.

Though instances of courage and heroism aren't as prevalent in the larger landscape of society, that doesn't mean they don't take place on a smaller scale.  The heroes of society cannot be found in the limelight.  They shun attention and live quietly among us, going about their daily routines.  They are the people who would never characterize themselves as heroes, and not solely because of their sense of modesty, but because they realize that true acts of courage are a necessity in this life.  

Heroes aren't trying to become heroes, as they are instead interests in fulfilling an obligation.  They are our friends, neighbors, and family.  We don't always see them working as courageous, because we have grown so accustomed to their selflessness and sacrifice.  It is only in their absence do we sense precisely how valuable they have been.  And hopefully, this will spur us to do for others what has been done for us.  

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