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In Sight of Ourselves: 8. Hero (December 7, 2001)

Heroism. We become heroes when we mindfully endure toward a caring goal despite fear and the threat of danger. Heroism is courage in action. The action might be something that helps others. We can be courageous on our behalf as well. A person who manages to calm himself to board an aircraft despite a terror of flying is more the hero than a mountain climber whose expertise allows him to ascend with little fear.

All heroism involves facing fear and listening to our hearts and not our feet. It is a response to real or imagined danger. Descending the steps to the ground floor of our home in the middle of the night to investigate a strange sound is made no less heroic when we discover the cat pushed a book off the kitchen table.

What makes us a hero is the action we take, not the outcome we achieve. Heroism is too often popularly associated with a dramatic success. In the public mind, the hero is often someone who accomplished great financial goals or achieved great fame. The child puts posters up in his room of a pampered professional athlete whose greatest challenge was breaking a sweat. Or a young teen gazes fondly at a picture of a rock star whose greatest challenge is lifting his guitar. Those athletes and musicians who persevered despite self-doubt and bravely faced great obstacles in the pursuit of their goals are heroes indeed. But they are no more heroic than the rest of us who face fear and danger and persevere. Instead of seeing them adore false heroes, I would rather have my child display a poster of a young, inner-city mother who left welfare to work a difficult job to support her children or of a young man who bravely accepts the responsibilities of fatherhood. These people are real heroes.

What is not heroic? The pursuit of an indifferent or hostile goal is not heroic. The drug dealer in a gun battle with police may be viewed as daring but certainly not heroic. That term would be better given to the officers who oppose him on our behalf. The pursuit of a caring goal without the element of fear is not heroism. Dale Carnegie might be viewed as a great benefactor whose philanthropy continues today. But sharing a small portion of his great wealth is not heroic. Responding foolishly is not heroism. Jumping into a lake to save a drowning person makes no sense if we do not know how to swim. Heroism has to involve mindfulness, the ability to evaluate a situation and make a choice to respond as effectively as we can.

Heroes are made, not born. How do we make a hero? By loving our children so much that they begin to feel a debt of caring to others, by showing them how to be courageous, by reading stories of courage, and showing pride in their courageous choices. Teachers are important too when they use their classrooms as learning laboratories that encourage skills that are not so readily learned at home. The child who learns to confront a bully on the playground today displays a heroism we will all depend on when that child grows up to face the difficult days to come.

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