Defining heroism: What are the characteristics of a hero?

Definition of a Hero Sign 7

Who can be a hero? For the past couple of weeks, I have observed and sometimes participated in an ongoing conversation about the definition of a hero. You can find some of the various viewpoints (in order of appearance) here, here, and here. The comment sections for each offer even more food for thought.

Why is it important to define heroism?

In a separate post, Ari Kohen states: "Gone, I hope, will be the sort of hero inflation we’ve seen of late – where anything and anyone is suddenly a hero so long as one person thinks so – and we might thereby push back against the approaching meaninglessness that has begun to threaten the word 'hero.'"

So, what is the definition of the word "hero?"

I've found that most, if not all, of the various ideas about heroism are represented by four sources:

Joseph Campbell: The hero as adventurer Zeno Franco & Philip Zimbardo: The hero as change agent Scott Allison & George Goethals: The hero as cultural phenomenon Chris Lowney: The hero as striver

I'm reminded of a parable in which a group of blind men are asked to describe an elephant. As each person encounters a different part of the elephant, each of them has a different interpretation of the object before them. The moral of the story:

"All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned."

In the same way, heroism has all of the features described by these brilliant people. Heroes venture where others have not or will not go. Heroes embrace risks or make sacrifices to serve others. Heroes exist in our collective consciousness today in the same way that the classical heroes did for the ancients. And heroism is a consistent and constant journey, if not struggle, to go beyond our limits out of a commitment to our own personal values and our compassion for others.

“Waste no more time arguing what a good (person) should be. Be one.” -Marcus Aurelius

As much as the media and popular culture seek to anoint heroes, there are no Academy Awards for heroism. Inasmuch as a performer at a local community theatre and the most prominent performer on Broadway are both actors, so too can heroism be performed on different stages.

If the goal is to "nurture the heroic imagination," doesn't it make sense to invite as many people as possible to commit to their own personal Hero's Journey?

In order to become a hero, you must:

  • develop your self-awareness (of what drives you, of what deters you, of how you are aligning with your purpose and values in any given moment),
  • do things that extend your limits (challenge your fears, acquire new knowledge, learn new skills, strengthen existing skills),
  • nurture your compassion by sacrificing yourself, taking risks, and offering yourself for the good of others (from those who are most like you to those who are the most different from you), and
  • make a commitment to the cycle of the Hero's Journey.

Waste no more time.

You can be a hero, if you choose to be.