What Defines a Hero

What defines a hero? In today's popular American culture, heroes are generally identified as sports stars such as Michael Jordan, music idols like Brittney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, or movie stars like Mel Gibson and Sandra Bullock. Perhaps these people are seen as heroes because of their success in the highly competitive professions of sports, music, and film, or because they have large sums of money in a society that views a person's worth as directly proportional to the dollar-figure in that person's bank account.

However, in my view being a hero has many more qualifications than fame or a large bank account balance. That is not to say that someone cannot see a person like Michael Jordan as a hero - Jordan has done much more than play basketball. Jordan has done much in Chicago to help with inner-city literacy programs and he has contributed time and money to several charities.

The most concise definition of hero that I can think of is probably a sentient being who has done something to help or aide another being in some fashion important to the recipient.

The wording of that definition is very specific - "sentient being" not "human being" or "person" as animals other than humans can be heroes as well. I have known several feline and canine heroes, and have heard of many other types, as well. In addition, the method of help/aid needs to be meaningful to the recipient; otherwise any "heroic actions" are wasted. If someone tries to help me by yelling or nagging at me in order to encourage me to get some sort of work done, s/he will do nothing to actually help me - instead only succeed in annoying me. However, that person may be one who gets encouragement from constant nagging pressure. Though the method may be meaningful to the person performing the action, if it is not meaningful to the person receiving, the action is useless.

One of my personal heroes happens to be my best friend, LDO. We met in the eighth grade and became the closest of friends, as we were both the 'outcasts' of the school. At the time, I was trying desperately to 'fit in' and be 'part of the crowd' because I was supremely tired of being laughed at. LDO was nothing of the sort. She was her own person and to the wind with what anyone else thought of it. Over the course of the school year, through LDO's example I began to be more of who I was, instead of what everyone else thought I should be. I honestly do not know what I would be like now, or if I would even be here, if LDO had not been there - an example of what I could do, regardless of what other people thought. She and I are still best friends, and she is still one of my heroes. Now, instead of silently encouraging me to be my own person regardless of what the popular mind thinks, she bolsters my desire for academic success with her own very successful academic career.

While discussing the subject of heroes with my friend Anubis, he told me that his dad is a hero. When I asked him why his father is a hero, Anubis said, "Because he helped through my life, taught me things that I should know, laughed with me, cried with me, and has shown me how to see the world clearly. And he's saved my life." Again, this person is a hero because he helped another in a meaningful manner.

Something as simple as a sympathetic ear during a time of need can make someone a hero, just as something large and dramatic like saving a drowning child from dying can. What actually makes someone a hero is as individual as the people on this earth and it is up to each person to decide.

Everyone uses different criteria to decide what makes someone a hero.

As for myself, I imagine the person and see if the following apply:

This person has qualities that I admire, that I see as noble.

Reading this person's autobiography would be fun.

I would enjoy having lunch with him or her.

I can consider this person in their totality. They're not perfect, but no aspect of their character disgusts me.

If I turned out like this person, I wouldn't be disappointed

I saw the movie 'Braveheart' yesterday. You know that one? It's a movie about William Wallace, the 13th century Scot hero. Mel Gibson produced the film and plays the main role (of Wallace himself). At the beginning and at the end of the movie the narrator in the background is Angus MacFadyen, who also acts as Robert the Bruce, one of the Scot nobles that betrayed Wallace. At the beginning of the movie, the first sentence narrated by MacFadyen is 'Let me tell you about William Wallace.'

It's a very nice heroic Epic, I must say. Great acting by Mel Gibson and the good looking villager, whatshername – they marry and then the English lord murders her, a deed that sets Gibson, err, Wallace, into the vendetta. Stephen Billington is awesome as Phillip the mad Irishman, all full of brilliant faces and cunning blurts. Heroism flows like water at the end; Wallace refuses to ask forgiveness from the king, shouting 'Freedom!' as he is tortured to death. It's a very nice heroic Epic, like I said.

Very nice indeed, but I doubt if the movie conveys even a fraction of Wallace's life. Enter 'Yahoo!: United Kingdom > Scotland > Middle Ages > People > William Wallace (1272-1305)'. I see seven historical sites dealing with Wallace, sites that deal with him before the playwright's smoothing-chopping-soothing-fixing-improving hand made that medieval Scot warlord into Mr. white-toothed superstar Gibson, you know, the kind of things you and I like to see with popcorn and a Pepsi. I guess in those web pages, we can find Wallace in a slightly truer form.

But I doubt if they truly write about Wallace. The historian's fountain pen lies, and so will every person upon this Earth, dead or alive, will lie to you when talking about William Wallace. Those who tell his story, they tell about battles and speeches and wedding and torture. But if Wallace lived thirty three years, how much time out of these years did he actually engage heroic battle? Could it be that he fought for a year of his life? It's hard for me to believe that if we sum Wallace's life, we'll end up with a year of fighting (that's eight-thousand sweaty hours with a drawn sword, mind you). I'm willing to guess that Wallace fought for a week, total, during his life. Which isn't bad, that's enough for twenty one battles of eight hours each. Lets add half a day of patriotic speeches, tortured for an hour and married for two. Reasonable, eh? That's a hundred and eighty three heroic hours, yes? But Wallace lived for about two hundred thousand hours. Lets shave that number a bit – one hundred twenty thousand hours during which Wallace didn't eat, drink, sleep or grow up (I reckon that Wallace didn't do anything with historical significance prior to age four, and I doubt that anyone will tell you about that time in his life).

What on Earth did Wallace do for a hundred and twenty thousand hours? Come; Let me tell you about William Wallace. For a hundred and twenty thousand hours, Wallace oiled his sword. He picked herbs. He joined battle drills. He learned Latin and French. He churned milk into cheese. Buried his friends. Recovered from a wound. Was heartbroken. Got excited at the sight of a new weapon. Let me tell you about William Wallace. His cheese had an awful odor, just like any other villager's cheese. His sword fell and scratched his thigh no less than any other warrior's. His heart broke and his lips paled like any other mortal.

At the height of his reign, during the battle of Falkirk, William had about thirty thousand warriors in his army. The English King, Edward the First, had more than three times that amount. How many people were there in Scotland at the time? I bet it wasn't thirty thousand. I can't find historical evidence, but I'm taking the liberty to say there must have been a million blokes and lassies and chaps at Scotland back then. A million. How many of them were men fit for battle? Three hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand?

Three hundred thousand men who can yield a sword, yes? Where were they during the battle of Falkirk? Let me tell you about William Wallace. They were in Scotland, growing their crops and herding their cattle. The thought Wallace was a reckless idiot who'd bring a holocaust over Scotland, once he will lose and the English will come to pillage and plunder, burn and destroy, rape and murder. They didn't understand why Wallace can't just stay at home, bow his head slightly to the English king, and live – if not with dignity, then in peace. Out of those three thousand, ten must have known him from childhood. Five must have told him. One must have split his heart asunder, showing him that his best friend hasn't a clue as for why Wallace is doing any of the things he does, any of his sacrifices.

William Wallace held strong during the English king's tortures. During his trial, charged with treason, William shouted at the prosecutor – and the words flew across hundreds of years into my computer's screen: "I can not be a traitor, for I owe him no allegiance. He is not my Sovereign; he never received my homage; and whilst life is in this persecuted body, he never shall receive it. To the other points whereof I am accused, I freely confess them all. As Governor of my country I have been an enemy to its enemies; I have slain the English; I have mortally opposed the English King; I have stormed and taken the towns and castles which he unjustly claimed as his own. If I or my soldiers have plundered or done injury to the houses or ministers of religion, I repent me of my sin; but it is not of Edward of England I shall ask pardon." As it happens, I happen to have missed that speech; it was in Westminster, on August 23, 1305. I wasn't there, but somehow, I have no doubt that Wallace's eyes rained fire more terrible than a dragons breathe during his speech. Now, please, reread the words of his speech. Just go back, and reread this paragraph. How long did it take you? Thirty seconds? Thirty five?

Those seconds are important. The most important seconds of his life, perhaps. But there have been so many other seconds. Let me tell you about William Wallace. His face turned ashen gray upon the corruption among the nobles of Scotland. His eyes became dark sockets in his skull, during the long nights when he gazed at nothing and saw his dead soldiers. Sometimes, I assure you, he was certain that his suffering and their suffering was for nothing. Sometimes, he might have broken. Maybe there were days during which his Lieutenant or squire heard his doubts, far from the ears of the soldiers. Upon seeing pillagers among his ranks and corrupt subordinates, upon the faintness of the odds, upon coward nobles who're not worth the golden rings they wear, there must have been days when he just wanted to go home. Go back to his dead wife and unborn son; go back to his village and to the wheat fields. Scotland can go to hell. Maybe if it wasn't for some Lieutenant, Gibson would have made a movie about a different warrior in a different country. Maybe if it wasn't for an unnamed boy, and him not even a squire, there would not have been a hero in thirteen century Scotland.

In the movies, the hero's wife is murdered and he's set on a path of revenge. He's twenty, and we see him practicing his sword and falling under the weight of his own armor. Cut. He's twenty two and we see him running in the frozen mountains, close-up on his eyes, and we really believe that at this very moment his soul is being cast in iron. Cut. The hero is twenty five, and his muscles are mighty, his beard is thick, his eyes are steel, and I'll be damned, look at the tip of his sword dance. Cut and send to print, good job.

Let me tell you about the hero. It's been five years that he wakes up in the morning, every morning, and goes out to run in the field. Not a scene, not twenty seconds, no popcorn and a Pepsi and Dolby Surround, for heaven's sake. But an hour and a half every morning and twenty kilometers and seven degrees below zero. Not four scenes during two minutes, no digitally mastered orchestra playing in the background. It's a thousand, seven hundred and eighty days of training in which he lives and in which he drowns every single second, no one cuts the scene. The doubt is eating him up. The wind is chilling. The failures, the tens of personal failures make his spiritual blood trickle slowly and vanish in the snow. Understanding, admittance, support, hope and aspirations – they're but single rays of light in a sea of darkness. There's no crowd to watch you at five in the morning. There's no DVD European encoded subtitle, saying: 'Century Lasting Hero'. You wake up every morning, and you know why only some of the time. You fall down in the snow and take a shorter route, then you're ashamed of yourself for months. You don't know, you honestly haven't the slightest clue if you're a hero or a fool. Sometimes, ah, sometimes you believe. Sometimes, you weep and cry like a baby, the frosted needle-leaves of the pines muffle your voice.

The hero isn't a hero when tortured. He's not a hero in his muscles, or a hero with his sword. He's a hero when he breaks, and then he picks up his bloodstained pieces and continue just until tomorrow. Tomorrow, he will continue until next week. He's a hero, not because of his unshakeable belief, but because of the ragged belief he's been patching and sewing after it's been torn tens of times. Columbus wasn't a hero on his caravel at sea. He was a hero during the years he sat in the courtyard of King Ferdinand, arguing with passion that India is in the west. He'd wake up before dawn, and fall asleep on his wooden bench far after the sun has set.

Not one hero in history. Not five, not a hundred. There have been hundreds of thousands of heroes in the human history. Not about all of them will Gibson make a movie. Not all of them in the Scot snow. Some have cancer, and are patching their belief on a bed in a hospital. Some are researchers in some governmental institute. Some are indeed soldiers, stranded in some desert, enemies all around them and air support will only be there in three hours. There was a line at the end of the movie, which summarized heroism for me. 'Every man gets to die. Not every man lives.' Come, sit with me. Come, let me tell you about William Wallace.

I originally wrote it in Hebrew; translated: 2002-09-15

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