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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Something missing

The definition of "hero" has been defined down

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

Few words were spoken more during the 9/11 crisis than "hero," applied to firefighters, police, and anyone who showed up to give blood. It was as if thinking heroically would make us so, even if all we did was gather at dusk and light candles. When the hysteria died down so did the hyperbole, for the most part.

But the heroic ideal doesn't go away. It's in our collective memory, a fixture of literature and storytelling since time began. In ancient literature, "heroic" usually meant strong and fearless. That's pretty much it: Achilles' pride did not disqualify him, nor did Odysseus' deception. The Mighty Men of David's time were acclaimed mostly for their body count. There were monsters on the loose, and only fearless strength could defeat them. Aristotle added complexity with his definition of "tragic hero": a noble figure brought down by his own fatal flaw, though he often regained stature through suffering.

Today, cultural refinement has boosted the ideal of fearless strength into the ironic category of "superhero," while the Aristotelian model has picked up enough complications for the tag "anti-hero." But a plain old hero can be anybody we look up to, whether in the highest positions of authority or around the kitchen table. That's fine-far better to look up to somebody than down on everybody, and the latest Harris poll on the subject contains both good news and bad.

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Most reporting of the poll (2,634 U.S. adults polled online in mid-January 2009) led with the factoid that Barak Obama topped Jesus as America's most popular hero. That is, in answer to the question, "Who do you admire enough to call a hero?" Obama's name came up more often. This is not as ominous as it might appear: Respondents could name up to three individuals and were not prompted with a list to choose from. So it's heartening that Jesus, who was not being inaugurated that month and has not dominated news cycles for the last two years, still came in second.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is consensus on what makes a hero. Here participants were offered a list of qualities and were asked if each figured to a large degree, a lesser degree, or none at all in their definition. "Doing what's right regardless of personal consequences" came in first, followed by "Not giving up until the goal is accomplished." Courage and determination, respectively-noble qualities, but something is missing.

What happened to the idea of self-sacrifice? The closest to that on the survey was "Willingness to risk personal safety to help others," and it polled sixth, after "Staying level-headed in a crisis." Yet self-sacrifice is what made our eyes well up at the news of firefighters rushing into the World Trade Center, even while knowing they might never come out. It's a major qualification for the Purple Heart, often awarded posthumously because the recipient has made the ultimate sacrifice. It is, in fact, the path of heroism blazed by the One who emptied Himself and lay down His life for His sheep-an example that has haunted the Western world ever since. Other attributes mentioned in the survey contribute to heroism, but the one that actually constitutes it, to many minds, didn't come up.

So while it's nice that Jesus came in second, the reason is unclear. Because He "overcame adversity"? "Did more than what was expected of Him"? These are self-enhancing qualities, not self-denying ones-and that may say something about what has quietly stolen out of our culture.

When the question was first asked in a 2001 Harris survey, 96 percent responded with at least one hero. In January, only 68 percent did-the remaining 32 percent either had no heroes or couldn't think of any. The cut-rate cynicism that has infected the media may play a part in that, but if we've lost sight of the major component of heroism, is it any wonder that we begin losing sight of heroes?

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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