Bonnie Tyler made it clear in her 1985 hit, Holding out for a Hero, what she expected from her saviour to be on that day he arrives at her door: “he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight… he’s gotta be sure and it’s gotta be soon and he’s gotta be larger than life”. While ladies like Bonnie long for that man to show up, us gents spend hours daydreaming of standing triumphant over a slain enemy or more likely nowadays, bringing the solution which society has been waiting for all along – and then getting the chick of course. Because that is what being a hero is all about, isn’t it?
When we think of heroes today we picture action heroes, transformed from the pages of a comic strip to a walking talking bad guy killing machine of a man. And on occasion we see female versions of these dancing around even. These are mostly ordinary people who, by some weird twist of fate, received various super-human powers or abilities which enable them to outperform the average, normal human being. We might even be living in the post-superhero era now where we see movies like Kick-Ass, in which ordinary kids dress up as superheroes and fight crime, being screened. Then there is the increasingly popular tv series Chuck, in which an ordinary geek continuously saves the day.
Growing up I also had various television heroes. I remember the American Ninja, Indiana Jones, and of course the team from Sending Vietnam (Mission Vietnam in English, although it had different names in the various countries it aired around the world). One could say that this show, which follows an American infantry platoon on a tour of duty during the Vietnam War, with its famous Rolling Stones soundtrack, played a huge part in the way boys born in the early eighties viewed war – the way most of my friends did at least. When I was around eight years old and watched this program I actually told my parents that I can’t wait to join the army – not having a clue what it was all about in reality of course. That is exactly why we mostly desire to be heroes or commit a heroic act at least once in our lives: we don’t have a clue what it’s all about.
We all want to fight like Maximus in Gladiator or free our people like William Wallace did for his fellow Scotsmen, but why would we desire this? I too am very quick to romanticise what it is like being a hero but then I get challenged by words like these from a conversation between the two Trojan princes, Hector and his brother Paris:
Hector: Oh, and that sounds heroic to you, doesn’t it? To die fighting? Tell me, little brother, have you ever killed a man?
Hector: Ever seen a man die in combat?
Hector: I’ve killed men, and I’ve heard them dying, and I’ve watched them dying, and there’s nothing glorious about it, nothing poetic! You say you want to die for love, but you know nothing about dying and you know nothing about love!
As I am typing this I’ve got the soundtrack of The Fellowship of the Ring movie playing in the background. This takes my mind to something a bit closer to the reality of what being a hero is all about. If you have not watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy yet, please make a plan and do so. The reality is the same as with all the other heroes I mentioned above but it is portrayed so much more clearly though. We realise here that becoming a hero is not something one plans to do or dream about, it is rather a case where the reality of death, destruction and suffering of those around you becomes so real and painful to yourself that you cannot help but put an end to it, even if it means putting an end to yourself. It is when we deny our own rights and take ownership of a responsibility which was maybe not even ours to start with. Bill Wilson, founder of Metro Ministries, mentions that when one comes close enough to death you only have one of two choices: you either run to it (to offer your help) or you run from it. Heroes run to it.
I think of other heroes many South African children grew up learning about such as Racheltjie de Beer, who dug open an ant heap, hid her younger brother in it and covered him with her clothes while covering the hole with her body after they got lost in the field during a cold winter night. Her brother survived the night, she was found dead the next morning. Then there was Wolraad Woltemade, a dairy farmer from the Cape Town district who rescued several people from a sinking ship in Table Bay by entering the cold waters several times on horse-back but eventually him and his horse grew tired and both of them drowned but managed to save fourteen souls in the process.
It’s amazing how all these stories stick with us and yet we are drawn to heroism because of the honour and praise these people receive from men around them and many times we act simply because of the satisfaction and glory we receive from doing so. Frodo and Samwise, the two brave characters featured in the The Lord of Rings, on the other hand, did return safely after their quest and were honoured for their unselfish efforts, and rightly so I say. The truth is however that it was never about the celebration afterwards to them. The vulnerability of both those they loved as well as those they did not even know, in the face of danger, was what drove them to acts of heroism.
I know a man who would always mention that he believes at least eighty percent of our good works come from selfish intent but that it shouldn’t keep us from doing them anyway. The point I’m trying to make above is also not that we should rather forget about being heroes because our attitudes stink, and because we haven’t got a clue what life is about. I would rather encourage us to allow God, who knows everything about death and knows everything about love, build in us sound characters – the type of character which doesn’t run from death and destruction but runs to it.