Courageous thoughts on heroism

 

 

THE FIFTH COLUMN

Heroics are defined in the Cambridge dictionary in two very different ways. Heroics, one group of scholars says, are “dangerous or silly actions that are only done to make other people admire you”. No, the other group says, heroics are “unusual actions or achievements that are far greater than what is expected”.

Moving into middle age, I’m at odds with the idea of a hero, of heroism. During a post-match interview, the England cricket team’s World Cup efforts were described as heroic even though, on the day, only national pride was at stake. War heroes, if they did their job properly, would have both a kill count and a save count. In advertising, the picture of the guy holding the ketchup bottle upright, its label facing the camera, is known as the hero shot.

Are these people heroes? I’m not so sure.

That said, some days I wonder whether what I’ve achieved is not heroic in the “far greater than what is expected” sense. For me, interacting with a shop clerk takes great courage. Yes, there has been progress over the years, but the interaction is never natural; there is no flow; it requires a superhuman effort, but I do it regardless, for if I didn’t I would forever wonder whether they had size 12 Converse sneakers in black or not. Am I a hero? Possibly.

Superhuman effort might be taking it too far. Heroism, especially in its super form, seems to imply a total absence of fear. It’s hard to imagine Superman hiding a subtle fear of heights, Aquaman overcoming his debilitating fear of water, and Batman’s heart rate shooting up like mine when the shop clerks start to circle.

For us mortals, fear — in the correct dosage — is often what keeps us alive. A complete lack of fear — running into a burning building, say — is therefore a death wish and the mark of the insane, or the silly. (It’s for good reason that customers lying on their stomachs in a bank while it is being robbed are reminded to not try to be heroes.)

Yet heroes abound on sports fields, in folk tales and walking slowly with a helping hand from family members in war veteran parades. Wolraad Woltemade, I was told as a pre-schooler listening with great intent with my fellow pre-schoolers, was a man who rode a horse into a raging sea to save the lives of a crew who jumped ship. At about the same time Santa Claus was outed as a family member it surfaced, from among those same pre-schoolers, much older then, that Wolraad was possibly blackout drunk at the time — or had something called “Dutch courage” — and may have carried out the mission on a dare. Whether inebriation fuelled the rescue or not, old Wolraad, on Wikipedia and elsewhere, is regarded as a bona fide hero: he risked his life to save the lives of others.

And perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps we the non-heroes need them — the psychopaths who put everything on the line — because most, if not all, of us have a gaping hole inside that needs filling. And sometimes 11 cricket players, or a drunk horseman, fit that hole perfectly.

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Hans Mackenzie Main
Hans Mackenzie Main
Writer/Columnist at Mail & Guardian

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