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On Missing Heroes

February 19, 2015

The word ‘hero’ originates from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), which means protector or defender. In Hellenic, Classical, and Homeric literature, heroes were defined as superhuman, God-like beings who accomplished great feats. Think of Herakles, Perseus, Jason and Medeia. But somehow, the immortal qualities of the term were lost in translation when it moved into English in 1387, and it was in the form of lovers, warriors, leaders, and martyrs that heroes came to figure in Western literature and popular culture. From deities and sons of gods, heroes became real people, looked up to because they were brave, self-sacrificing, noble, and good. These role models permeated children’s dreams each night and inspired their adventures the following day.



In his analysis of the Russian fairy tale, which has since been more broadly applied, Vladimir Propp found that in any storyline, any of the characters could be a hero. He could be a victim-hero, whereby a foreign evil befell the character and prompted him to react, or he could be a seeker-hero, in which case he would alone come to the conclusion that something was missing from his life, and set out on a quest to find it.


The stories were different, but the groundwork was the same. Yes, anyone could be a hero.


Though inspired, the idea of ordinary men and women embarking on an adventure to accomplish difficult, extraordinary things soon got old. In real life, there were too few of them, too far spaced in time and place, and the fact that they were human was the worst part of it all.


Humans were fragile and flawed. They could not be all-powerful, they could not save us all, a fact we often forgot as we tucked our children into bed on cold and dark nights and told them stories of damsels saved and dragons slain. We expected too much of our heroes, and when life queued the wars and the epidemics, the financial crises and the car collisions, the 8 pm news and the frustrations of every day life, they inevitably let us down. Sometimes, they even died.


We grew jaded and up. We became more demanding; humanity was not something we were willing to tolerate. It was reassurance, and excitement, we craved. So rather than tell our children about ordinary human characters who did extraordinary things, we reverted to the strategy of the ancient Greeks and reinstated the invincible and the extraordinary. Enter… the superhero.


Mandrake the Magician was the first modern superhero to appear in a syndicated newspaper comic strip by Lee Falk, in 1934. Mandrake sparked a movement: superheroes spread like wildfire. Wherever a hero had been placed to inspire, a superhero swept in, instead, to entertain. Bat, Super, Spider, Iron… the list of superheroes grew so long that today no one knows exactly how many there are. The demand for them is at an all time high, and the supply is happily provided: by 2019 Disney, Warner Bros., Fox and Sony pictures will have released at least thirty new superhero movies.



There is a reason superheroes are more appealing than heroes: superheroes are not human. They have superpowers precisely because we are not meant to identify with them, because they are not meant to be role models. Now isn’t that a relief. Watch and marvel, gasp and clap, but do not attempt at home. We can now sink deeper into our comfortable couches and gape blankly at our giant screens without feeling guilty for not trying to save the planet. The Devil take the hindmost, because hey, we can’t fly.


And that is how we came to be missing heroes. There is just as much evil in the world today, some would say more, but there are less of us protesting or reacting. On the contrary, we have accepted it and, ever resourceful, we have developed a system to deal effectively with it: triage.


'Triage' is a French term that was first used by doctors treating wounded soldiers in the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars. Faced with so many victims, the outnumbered doctors would decide whom to attend to by dividing them into three categories:


  • Those likely to live, whether or not they received care.

  • Those likely to die, whether or not they received care.

  • Those who could be saved if they received immediate care.


There. Now we didn’t need to save the whole world. We could focus on the one third with whom we were rationally, logically guaranteed to succeed. We even lightened the load of our responsibility further by setting a margin of ‘acceptable’ triage error rates: 5% for undertriage and up to 50% for overtriage. Again, isn’t that a relief.


One could say that our society has successfully closed the gap between idealism and reality. Heroism is just too hard, pragmatism makes more sense. I do not necessarily disagree; we are all doing the best we can with the incomplete givens we have. And perhaps there is wisdom in acknowledging that at the end of the day, we are fragile and flawed, and we cannot save the world.


But I think we are letting ourselves off too easily. Yes, heroism is hard. Yes our heroes are fragile and flawed, and so far they have not succeeded in saving the world. They are, after all, only human. But perhaps it is that very humanity we dismiss as idealistic and weak that keeps them trying anyway, one battlefield victim at a time. And perhaps if we got off our judgmental couches and gave them a hand, we could save one, or two more. And wouldn’t that be something.



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