Martin Hughes of Beaumont, Texas, writes: Marilyn: Several years ago, you responded to a question from a reader about what it means to be a hero. The word, in my opinion, has been degraded. I have lost that column, but I remember that I thought your definition was very insightful. Can you repeat it?
I’d love to! The subject is increasingly relevant (many readers are sending similar letters), so I’m going to devote today and tomorrow (four questions and answers in all) to the topic of heroism. There’s nothing in the news that thrills me more than reading about a real-life hero.
#3 (published November 4, 2001)
Marilyn: What is your definition of a hero? —William Trush, Gilbert, Arizona
In my opinion, heroes exist in different degrees, like great men and women: some are even greater than others. But in essence, I believe that a hero is a person who risks his or her own life—maybe even losing it—in a selfless, successful effort to save the life of another. For example, if a mother dives into a river to save her struggling child, she isn’t really a hero; but if she dives into a river to save a struggling child unknown to her, she is clearly a hero if she is successful and if not, she certainly behaved heroically.
Likewise, acts of self-defense, even when the lives of others also are at stake, do not quite rise to the level of heroism, although they may be courageous. In addition, the degree of individual heroism grows with various factors, such as nobility of purpose, the degree of risk, and so on. So wartime itself does not produce heroes; instead, it awakens the giants among us.