Everyone’s a hero in their own way
You and you and mostly me and you.
— Captain Hammer
Stephen Marche wrote a column about the utter meaninglessness of the word ‘hero’ as currently used in America: We Are All Heroes. The stinger at the end sums the whole thing up nicely: If people living up to their basic obligations are heroes, then we’re all failing disastrously.
As I read the column, though, I found myself thinking “Yes, but…” a lot. I think there’s a lot more to the issue. Which is not to say Mr. Marche doesn’t, because goodness knows it’s hard if not flat impossible to boil down a complex issue into a snappy column that comes in at the appropriate word count.
However, since this is the internet, where oceans of text are spilled daily to expound on matters of no consequence that no one’s paying attention to anyway, I might as well say what I’m thinking. So, my buts. Let me show you them.
I’ve got kind of a knee-jerk defensiveness that kicks in every time mentions the self-esteem generation, participant ribbons, all that. Depending on who you ask, I’m either at the tail-end of Generation X or the very front of Generation Y (or whatever it’s fashionable to call them these days), but I always get this paranoid feeling that it’s me in the cross hairs. I don’t know when the self-esteem raising craze really hit, but I definitely churned through the public education system when it was in full swing. It just seems a little too easy to take a shot at the self-esteem bullshit we got fed in school.
I obviously only speak for myself and my limited group of friends that are close to my age, all of whom are intelligent, snarky nerds. But by about third or fourth grade, I’d copped to the fact that not only were participant ribbons meaningless, they were actually kind of insulting. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when everyone’s getting the same award, it’s not much of an award. Particularly when you’re awarded for participation in something that’s mandatory.
Perhaps I was remarkably cynical as a child. I also had amazing parents, who took pains to drive two important facts into my skull:
1) You are smart, and don’t ever take shit off of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.
2) It’s pathetically easy for even very smart people to do embarrassingly stupid things.
Hell, it could even be because my parents let me watch things like Life of Brian at an age that would probably cause some severe pearl clutching among the squadron of adults that think children are delicate hot house flowers as opposed to tiny, developing humans. There is a certain impression that gets made on you when you’re young and seeing the “Yes, we’re all individuals,” scene for the first time.
Whatever the reason, I want to give my peers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to participant ribbons and self-esteem raising. There’s an awful little part of me that would just like to think I had it all sussed out because I wasn’t one of the little sheeple (god I hate that word) but that smells way too much like hubris for my comfort.
At worst, the scourge of participant ribbons are a symptom. We didn’t turn into a country of selfish beasts because of the orange ribbon that got pinned to our shirts in sixth grade. The most toxic parts of selfish American culture that encourage an abdication of duty – emphasis on consumerism, lack of empathy for those on a lower social rung, the idea that we shouldn’t have to pay for anything – are not sourced from people in my age group. Sure, assholish thirty-somethings are now rallying around the idea that all taxes are too high and screw the safety net anyway, but the self-esteem generation isn’t leading the charge.
I’m pretty sure no one ever gave Senator Mitch McConnell a ribbon for just showing up. (Other than the invisible ribbons lovingly bestowed by privilege, but I digress.)
Maybe a message of selfishness is happily accepted by people who have had their egos artificially inflated. But I also think it is just that the lesser nature of the human animal is to be, well, kind of lazy and selfish. So anyone whispering sweet nothings about how we can have everything we ever wanted (Oh boy! A war in the Middle East!) and never have to pay a cent is going to have a lot of receptive ears.
This is a general failure on all our parts to reject the poisonous idea that selfishness is somehow an acceptable ground state, if not a virtue. Because if you’ve accepted that idea, even the smallest of selfless actions become noteworthy.
We like calling soldiers1, firefighters, and paramedics heroes – police as well, though that’s a bit more fraught. Some of it’s because, let’s be honest, most ordinary people would not want to run into a burning building or get shot at by hostile men armed with assault rifles, even if they were being paid to do so. People doing those things willingly, whether its their job or no, does seem a little fantastic.
There’s something else all of those heroic professions have in common, however: the pay is generally shit.
I volunteered as an EMT for several years. I never seriously considered making it a career because the pay was so ridiculously low, my mortgage would have swallowed up nearly half of my gross salary. (I do not live in a mansion with a pool.)
At a time when we have soldiers on food stamps and public safety workers looking down the barrel of severe budget cuts while simultaneously one party would love to slash social programs like food stamps, maybe calling these people heroes is also hollow compensation and pathetic excuse. You can’t feed your kids, but you’re a hero. You can barely scrape by, but you are some sort of superhuman paragon of virtue that should be above such mortal concerns anyway. We threw you a fancy party, what more do you want – more funding for suicide prevention? Mama needs a new tax cut.
Of course, it’s not just soldiers and public service workers that are struggling financially these days, though their struggle is all the poignant because it comes at such immense personal risk. But I think it’s this struggle that’s contributed to another change in how we view heroes. Mr. Marche mentions Peter Parker, and he’s a perfect example in this case. When you’re constantly having to decide if you’re going to have electricity or food this week, being a superhero does seem like it should be the easier half of life. Beating the ever-living shit out of a masked bad guy that’s threatening a little old lady is an easy, black and white call. When it’s a choice between heart medication and new shoes for your kid, it’s a hell of a lot harder.
This is not to say I disagree with Mr. Marche’s thesis. The utter cynicism which which the term hero is being wielded has everything to do with manipulation and political expediency. If we shy from our obligations as a nation, it’s because as a nation we have allowed our expectations to be so pathetically lowered, and without much of a fight.
But does that mean heroes are dead?
Mr. Marche retweeted this (so I have no idea if he agrees with it or just found it an interesting point), and it makes me sad:
@arcadiaego: not sure *anyone* is a hero outside myths. (Which may be your point, Steven.) But interesting article.
Maybe this is me clapping because I believe in fairies. If that’s the case, so be it. But no matter how meaningless the word becomes in public discourse, heroes still exist.
The presentation of heroes even in mythology isn’t so simple as all that, but for the sake of argument let’s grant that they’re paragons, that they’re presented as what we should aspire to be. There are still people – ordinary, flawed, beautiful, mortal people – that have that same quality. There are people who far exceed expectations, and in so doing encourage others to aspire to do the same. Mr. Marche brings up the example of Sal Giunta, who says he doesn’t feel like a hero at all.
But that’s kind of the point, I think. People who truly have that quality we should laud as heroic have expectations of themselves that far exceed those of society. When they meet their own expectations, they don’t necessarily find it out of the ordinary. But it should encourage the rest of us to examine our own expectations of ourselves, society’s expectations, and find them wanting.
When I was in Germany, one of the ladies I worked with told me that she’d recently found out her grandmother sheltered Jewish people from the Nazis during World War II. She said, “I’d like to think that if I were in that situation, I would be that strong. But you never know.”
That is what heroes do.
They make you look deep within yourself and say, if I were in that situation, facing that kind of danger, could I be that strong? If that were me, would I have that kind of fortitude? I don’t know.
But I will strive to be that person.
1 – I think with soldiers there’s also a whole other level of American neurosis at play, starting from the beginning of the Afghanistan War. People were reminded, and rightly so, about the abhorrent treatment some Vietnam War veterans received at the hands of civilians. No one wanted to see a repeat of that, particularly when it became clear that anti-war protests would be ongoing. We overcompensated, big and grand and loud, because damnit, that’s the American way. That desire to compensate then became a very useful political club to aim at anyone objecting to the wars, particularly in their early days.