A few of you English majors will roll your eyes at me for saying this, but I used to love reading fantasy books. Notice that, in acquiescence, I said books, not literature. Then again, I’m being disingenuous. Because I know at least one of you lit types likes fantasy, too. Your secret is safe.
Jackie’s primary complaint with fantasy is that everything is made up. Nothing is real. She found it difficult relating to fabricated worlds with their wildly absurd political systems, the over-the-top wicked or good characters, and fairies. We don’t have any fairies here.
My retort was always, “well, isn’t everything just made up here, too?” I never said it was a good retort. I was still a music major, yet to be bludgeoned to death by philosophy. At least I can take solace in knowing, that at least on some instinctual level, I was on the right track. I never managed to convince her to read any fantasy, though. Unless she sneaked it, guiltily hiding her newly found, unseemly habit from view. It wouldn’t surprise me. Her focus was Victorian Literature, after all.
I never realized when I first started reading fantasy that one of my favorite aspects was the mostly distinct separation between good and evil. Of course, a good person can get possessed by some demon temporarily, committing evil acts, but you knew they were really just a victim; a good person, who made a mistake, or things were out of their control. The heroes are often normal people who find themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances that never appear extraordinary at the time. They usually have no intention of being a hero and even resist it. They cannot imagine themselves heroes. Nevertheless, some nugget of good within them eventually drives them to sacrifice everything; their vocation, their family life, and even their self-interested desire just to live a simple life. They sacrifice it all, to do what they know is right — to do what must be done, even though they are convinced of their own failure from the outset. This is what makes them a hero.
We are inundated with marketing, spin and double-speak. It’s no wonder we have difficulty distinguishing our heads from holes in the wall any more. I’d like to forget about the hole in the wall for a minute, and focus on your head. And heroes.
Heroes can be anyone, but they are not just anyone. Heroes are not manufactured. Most heroes never know fame. Heroes do not have to kill people, or be killed. But all heroes are willing, and often do, sacrifice or risk everything they have or hold dear, in order to do what is right. And often, doing what is right benefits others while not necessarily benefiting the hero.
All cultures I know have the concept of a hero, with much the same definition. Something deep within our nature causes us to revere heroes and gain inspiration from their example. However, it is important to keep in mind that simply having reverence for someone is not enough to make them a hero. Being inspired by someone does not make them a hero. It only means that you like them, and possibly admire what they stand for, and may even wish to shape your own life accordingly. But unless they meet the requirements of being self-sacrificial in the cause of ethical truth, they do not meet the standard of being called a hero.
Does McCain’s capture by an enemy, and his survival of the ordeal make him a hero? No. It makes him a victim, who survived to live another day. We can be inspired by the story. We can be inspired by McCain himself, as the victim who survived. Does his supposed refusal to accept an offer of freedom from this enemy, unless all the other prisoners are released, make him a hero? Possibly, weakly so. It could also make him an idiot, since he could have left the prison camp and reported back valuable intelligence to our military forces that might have brought a quicker end to his comrade’s plight. I see no heroic qualities in McCain lately, at least. Which makes me question much of this legend. I also see no heroic qualities in Obama, just to be fair.
If you are a businessman who makes an innovation and tons of money, and you make all your employees rich too, are you a hero? No. If you join the military are you a hero? No. If you kill a bunch of Iraqis or insurgents are you a hero? No. If you risk your life to save a comrade are you a hero? Yes. If you risk your life to save a member of the Taliban are you a hero? Yes. If you leave your home on a quest to truly help people in need without any particular gain for yourself, are you a hero? Yes. If you blow the whistle on your boss, despite any sense of loyalty, when they are committing an act of “evil”, and there is no other recourse? Yes. If you are a leader or politician who stands up for what is truly right, despite what it might do to your career, are you a hero? Yes.
In fantasy books, much like in life, a true hero never considers themselves to be one. It is that quality of personal disassociation that gives them the moral clarity to perform acts of heroism. They have stopped thinking about just themselves. In the end, they are not so much concerned with their own life as they are about their effect upon the world, and other people, by their actions. Nearly any selfless act taken in the name of the ethically true is an heroic act.
The tragedy is, most of our heroes carry out their monumentally important acts without any acknowledgment. It is even common that lesser people often clamor to take credit for these heroes’ sacrifices and accomplishments, when events turn out well. This may be a sad blow to a hero, but that’s okay. Because the hero knows that what was truly important, they accomplished.
This is the story of the unsung hero. It is the story of some rare and few people, who are really very much like ourselves. It may be the story of best possible thing we can do with our lives. I certainly think the world could benefit from a few more true heroes.
It certainly is not easy navigating this world we have concocted — this fantasy we live within. Yet every day we are presented with opportunities to become true heroes. It is a fundamental characteristic of heroes that they live, in a sense, outside the structures most people find themselves within. This is often what puts them at odds, or at risk. And they willingly, though sometimes hesitantly, take that step into risk, for the greater good of all. Imagine what a different world it might be if people were more willing to take that step; to become heroes. All these people, standing outside of things, in the terms they know to be truly right. Standing outside of things, but still very much within each other’s midst.
One might be tempted to ask, well, what is ethically right, and subsequently dismiss any greater potential, because any answer must be arbitary. But I don’t know if the answers are really so arbitrary. I’m not so certain we have no idea what is truly the ethically right thing. What I do know is that heroes often make excuses to delay their journey. They don’t believe they are heroes, and they do not want to be. Yet somehow, the true hero eventually takes that step. And even unsung, such acts are the stuff of legend.