BY ELENA LOPEZ
One thing I know and am constantly amazed by and grateful for is that I am loved—I was saved by a hero unlike any other, with whom none can, or could ever, compare. But what do most people think of when they hear the word “hero”? Do you imagine a tall man in a cape or a knight in shining armor? A mythological demigod of unsurpassed might and strength? A renowned swordsman or archer? What exactly constitutes a hero?
A “hero” is defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as typically the main character in a literary work or any figure celebrated in the ancient legends of a people or in early heroic epics. I find this description rather subject to interpretation and reevaluation. Of course we are accustomed, especially in the collective memory and culture, to a certain set of values, tropes, clichés, and archetypes that encompass the (super) hero persona. Our hero is powerful and, if not physically accompanied by superpowers or blessed with mental prowess or foresight, characterized by an indomitable spirit even in the face of great evil or impossible odds. This person (for we have heroines too, though they are a rare breed) may be “The Chosen One” to vanquish evil, a recurring archetype that is quite prevalent in popular culture media, such as in Harry Potter, The Matrix, and The Legend of Zelda video game franchise. The common trend has been to romanticize individuals who exhibit these values —which can detract from seeing the real picture of true heroism versus heroic deeds.
We also have modern and historical examples of individuals whom we recognize as heroes for having stood up for justice, been voices of reason, or for being of remarkable contribution to society: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Bill Gates (to some), and Shigeru Miyamoto (the father of Nintendo). Needless to say, it is an extensive and ever-expanding list, but what is most interesting is the attribution of the title “hero” arbitrarily according to personal values. This makes sense, of course, in that we choose whom we look up to or appreciate for certain reasons, but this selection is highly telling of our selfish judgment of others on the sliding scale of idealism versus cynicism. By way of a very shallow example, in proclaiming oneself an exclusive Nintendo fan, one overlooks the positive qualities of other artists and game developers of other companies (namely Sony and Microsoft as major competitors), and this negligence can lead to violent confrontations among gamers known as flame wars. This arbitrary selection of “heroes” is not to say that certain individuals aren’t heroic or are genuinely recognized as heroes (whether or not one deserves to be considered a hero is another discussion), but rather that we as humans are not impartial or unbiased in said selection.
A hero to one person may be more of an antihero with a larger dose of moral ambiguity to another. Vigilantes (e.g., Rorschach in Watchmen or V in V for Vendetta) can, and almost always do, embody both extremes of heroism and villainy on the same coin. Again, perspective and understanding of motivation and actions, as well as personality, is of utmost importance in discerning heroism. Coming to a consensus on what constitutes heroism is another problem and something we don’t always agree on. It can even be argued that judging by one set of values over another risks falling into the vicious circle of moral relativism.
I am personally a fan of acts of heroism of epic proportions. So let’s take a look at The Lord of the Rings, for example. Most people hold that either Frodo or Aragorn is the main hero (i.e., the protagonist, especially in the films), but I always staunchly give my vote to the unsung hero Samwise Gamgee, the sidekick gardener: In terms of absolute bravery, loyalty, love, devotion, and sacrifice, I challenge you to find a better possible candidate than Sam in this saga. These essential traits are evidence of one’s heart and what I believe ultimately characterize a true hero, as opposed to just possessing certain heroic qualities or performing heroic deeds.
And here’s the point I’m trying to make: that we have a skewed and biased view of what constitutes a true hero in this modern day and age. For the most part, we love legends and epic stories which include mythologies and much of the foundation of religions, and we love hearing about real people who in essence try to make the world a better place. The hero of Christians, despite his divinity, was an average man who worked at a lowly craft; ate with his friends and family; cared for the sick, the injured, the hungry and weary; suffered and felt pain and betrayal; and carried the weight of the entire world (our sin) on his shoulders. Now watch The Return of the King again and tell me if you don’t see Sam carrying Frodo and the Ring up Mt. Doom in a hopefully new and reevaluated light. Plus, Sam makes a mean rabbit stew with po-ta-toes.
Now, this isn’t to belittle or ignore biblical heroes, but rather to provide some popular cultural framework for comparison in trying to understand our own misconceptions of heroism. Of course Jesus, as mentioned, demonstrates the greatest example of heroic sacrifice and love and is the embodiment of what true heroism should be. However, because of his dual nature as both fully human and fully divine, perhaps some other human “heroes” should be explored. Of particular importance in regard to understanding the markings of true heroism among regular people is the list of the normal and flawed individuals who nevertheless receive special commendation in Hebrews 11; they are recognized for their faith and are considered favorites of God precisely for this reason. Here the argument would be that true faith is equated with being a true hero in Christianity, where faith means obedience to God’s laws in trust and love—even at the cost of life, honor, limb, and loved one. This obedience is essentially humble submission. The overarching implication is that the road of a true hero will be arduous and painful, and rightly should be.
Apart from an obscure reference to the passage of the elves into the immortal West across the sea and from Christ himself rising from the dead, Enoch, one of the favorites listed in Hebrews, is truly the legend who never died and is another example of what constitutes true heroism. A seemingly minor and innocuous character (much like Samwise Gamgee in that sense), he is only mentioned in a few verses in the entire Bible; we are barely told anything about him except that he literally walked with the Lord and by faith he “was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found because God had taken him away” (Heb. 11:5 NIV). All we know about Enoch is his singular obedience and devotion to following God, quite literally.
To quote a message I heard today, champions (and heroes and legends) are not made overnight. The way I see it, true heroes are like steel blades, molded, forged, and tempered continuously by God’s fire and love. The trials and tribulations that beset them test their spirits and remove impurities until the end product is nigh indestructible and is a true sword of evil’s bane. As humans, we lose our edges and might even break sometimes under stress or duress, but the true heroes are those who submit, like Enoch, to God and allow Him to actively shape them after His image. Complete submission is the hardest thing anyone can ever do, for our own worst enemies are ourselves who give outside forces and deceit a way in. Just ask Gollum.