IF HISTORY and literature have taught us anything, it’s that humans always search for something greater than themselves. Not just in terms of philosophy or science, but in feats and prowess, the more than human.
This in many cases is channeled into myths and stories — tales of lost golden ages featuring creatures, fantastical abilities, angels and demons, flesh and blood people with the capacity to do the extraordinary, to do things the audience could only dream of. An age of heroes.
It’s a motif that permeates our society, and has for thousands of years. From Gilgamesh in Sumeria to Fionn MacCumhaill and Cúchulainn here, to the superhero of your choice from graphic novels, films, or television, they are always with us. And that’s fine. They are supposed to be inspirational and aspirational figures (even when deeply flawed). The idea is to inspire the audience try to be something better by exhibiting some of the qualities we wish we embodied ourselves. Superman is perhaps the most on the nose — superior to humans in every way, noble, principled, a messiah whose name includes a Hebrew name for God (El).
But why do we need to look for the superhuman the metahuman, the messianic?
In the past week the tragedy of Rescue 116 and the death of its four crew have highlighted that heroism is already a quality we possess, if we push ourselves. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Ciarán Smith, Paul Ormsby, and Mark Duffy regularly put themselves in danger for the sake of others. They had the training, but the drive was something they brought themselves. Each day, every day, in every circumstance.
These are and should be our heroes, people we can relate to in some way, who we can emulate, because they show skill and charity but no mythos or unachieveable superpower. They are people who do not shirk from a challenge. Capt Fitzpatrick has a son, aged 3, who is the same age as my children. He will not know her in person, but he will know from others that she was a hero, and rightly so. Hers was a calling, not a job.
And there are many people like them, people who give up their time to volunteer for sea or mountain rescues, for good causes, for people in desperate need, at home and abroad. We acknowledge their sacrifices, yet do not always describe them as heroes. We need to broaden our definition, at least the definition we carry around in our own heads.
You do not have to save a life to be a hero. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, said that a hero “is someone who has given his or herself to something bigger than oneself”. They have done something beyond the typical range of experience (which he says is why so many cultures write about them). But while in literature it may be winning a battle, or accomplishing some wonder or quest, we can look at it too as the potential for self sacrifice for a wider cause, what I would describe as for the betterment of others.
We, as a species, are capable of great compassion and beauty, a capacity matched by our potential for destruction and general idiocy (you can think of as many examples as I can). Perhaps our best antidote to ourselves is our own better nature, small everyday deeds that counter the world’s seeming desire to career off into armageddon.
Literature and myth celebrates the grand hero, but life is not made up of the deeds of great heroes. Much of the positivity around us is brought about by dozens of little actions every day, acts of small heroism, though that doesn’t — or shouldn’t — diminish it in any way.
Am I broadening the definition of heroism here? Maybe, but I don’t think so. This is an everyday heroism to which we can all not only aspire but achieve. Like any habit, good or bad, it takes effort and repetition. But the definition can be very broad. It’s taking an interest in the lives of others and wanting those lives to be better and complete, without seeking or wanting anything in return. It’s basically just giving a damn.
It could be a teacher who routinely gives up time during and after school to help students reach their potential, or to counsel them through some dilemma; they don’t do this for glory, but because it’s the right thing to do. It could be a successful businessman who goes on the streets unheralded to give food and help to the homeless; they don’t do this to raise their profile, but because they want to help. It could be the parent who goes without themselves to ensure that their children get what they need for school; they don’t do it for self-aggrandisement, but because they will do anything for their children. It could be a little boy with autism who rushes to protect his brother when he’s in distress; he may not fully understand what’s happening but he will throw himself between his brother and whatever potential problem there may be because it’s his brother.
Each one of us encounters these examples of everyday heroism. Each one of us can emulate them. The only thread in common is the consistent and repeated dedication to others, regardless of oneself. There are times when that may be relatively small scale, but most of life is relatively small scale. It just all adds up — provided we remember to make an effort.
Life is a splendoured, fascinating, fragile thing. All the more reason to do what we can in the time we have.
The ancients understood this. I am a journalist, but in my other life I am a medieval historian. One example I have encountered is that in the work of Bede, the first substantial historian of the Anglo- Saxons, who tells a story of how King Edwin of Northumbria was converted to Christianity. He had been dithering for some time (conversion was a very big deal, to be fair). Eventually, at a meeting in his hall, a missionary explains the faith to the assembly. The king asks his nobles what they think. One stands and describes life as a sparrow flying in one window and out another while there’s a storm outside. “For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all.”
I’m not advocating religious devotion here (that was Bede’s intention). I’m just saying that we only have a relatively tight window to make a difference (even a small one), to spread a little compassion, to be a hero to somebody.
So let’s celebrate — and rightly — the heroism of our search and rescue teams, of our emergency services and frontline medics. But let us also celebrate the everyday heroism of those who would otherwise go unheralded. Those are the ones that spread some small ripple of good amid the overall gloom and apathy.
It’s Monday, the start of a new week. Let’s start today.