Heroes play a significant role in our society. Not only do they save us when we’re in trouble, but they represent justice, balance fairness, and give us hope. Modern heroism is defined as “a behavior or action on behalf of another person or for a moral cause.” We all possess an inner hero capable of doing tremendous good for others. Unleash your heroic qualities by learning what makes a hero and embodying six characteristics that define heroic behavior.
“A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.”— Zeus, Hercules
“How am I supposed to prove myself a hero if nobody will give me a chance?” Hercules asked his trainer Philoctetes, feeling defeated and lost after many failed attempts to impress people with his heroic feats.
I remember having the chills as I watched this scene in the Disney movie. I could relate to Hercules and the dilemma he faced. I, too, had a hunger to be a hero. I wanted to be admired and respected for something that I did well. I just didn’t know how to achieve it.
I was a teenager, starting to question who I was, how I fit into my social groups, and what I brought to the table. My sense of self was developing, and, like most teens, I thought that I had to prove myself to earn the privilege to be accepted by the popular crowd and become a “somebody.” And for that to happen, I had to be exceptional.
It took me many years to realize that heroism isn’t about winning trophies and praise. Neither is it about providing lip service for causes you support without acting.
Heroism is a natural byproduct of becoming a person of character endowed with a generous spirit. From this selfless place, heroes carry out deeds that serve others. We need them more than ever in these turbulent and ethically dubious times.
To truly understand what makes a hero and unleash our heroic qualities, we’ll have to immerse ourselves in their world and understand their purpose in our cultures. By understanding their interior life and roles, we’ll be able to embody heroic virtues.
The heroes of yesterday: exploring heroes from ancient times
The term “hero” has existed for millennia. Long before the rise of larger-than-life fictional superheroes like Superman, Black Panther, and Spiderman, there were heroes from the mythologies of ancient Greece.
Some dictionaries allude to Greek heroes like Hercules, Achilles, and Perseus in their definition: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.
In these stirring tales of adventure and peril, Greek heroes single-handedly battled armies, slew monsters, and loved and lost beautiful maidens on their journeys. These legendary characters were idolized and often worshipped as gods.
Just like contemporary superheroes, they were aspirational figures that people looked up to whenever they needed a boost of confidence to overcome their own monsters.
While ancient heroes displayed incredible acts of strength, bravery, and resilience that saved lives and brought prosperity and freedom to nations — these feats were primarily motivated by self-interest and a quest for everlasting glory.
They possessed superhuman abilities and capabilities, like flying, teleportation, and strength, making them less relatable. While their extraordinary personas provided the ingredients for great stories, they didn’t give us a route to find what makes a hero.
For this reason, our definition of heroes has evolved over the years. The epic proportions of heroism from history have been grounded but not minimized in their importance.
The playing field has been leveled, and anyone can become a hero. Mythical heroes have been replaced by ordinary people with big hearts and dreams for a better tomorrow.
The caricature of a hero: what makes a true hero
Now that we’ve established that real heroes don’t wear capes let’s explore the human traits that make them special.
The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP), a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching people to become heroes in their everyday lives, defines heroism as “a behavior or action on behalf of another person or for a moral cause.”
Unlike the old perspective on heroism, heroic feats are remarkably undramatic, and those who perform them aren’t driven by the urge to win at all costs. Instead, they are driven by a need to serve others.
Even though modern-day heroes touch us deeply and solidify our beliefs in the basic goodness of humanity, the modern hero is often oblivious to the impact of their actions. They display a high degree of humility and a sense of duty.
Most of them will say, “I just saw someone who needed help, and I did what I felt was right. I didn’t do anything special, and others would do the same for me.”
When we think about heroic acts, there are plenty that we can find throughout history. There are one-time acts of spectacular courage like that shown by Wesley Autrey, a 50-year-old Navy veteran and construction worker at a subway station in 2007.
After watching a young man suffer a seizure and fall from the platform onto the subway tracks, he leaped into action even though he could see the headlights of an oncoming train. The train couldn’t stop in time, so Autry pressed the man down to find safety in the space under the tracks as five train cars rolled only inches from his head. When onlookers knew they were okay, there were cries of joy and applause.
Some people engage in lifelong heroism, like the healthcare workers who were celebrated during the COVID-19 pandemic and the firefighters spotlighted in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attack.
Heroes play a significant role in our society. Not only do they save us when we’re in trouble, represent justice and fairness, and pick us up when we’ve lost all hope. As role models, they demonstrate courage, resilience, and a moral code.
Many experts believe that people can learn what makes a hero by embodying these six characteristics:
1. Openness to other perspectives: Seeing things from another’s point of view and putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.
2. Confidence in one’s abilities: Having confidence in one’s competencies to face a crisis head-on even if the odds are against them.
3. Concern for others: Feeling compassion and empathy towards fellow humans.
4. Fearless and optimistic: Overcoming fears so they can jump into potentially dangerous situations, believing that things will work out for the best.
5. A strong sense of morals and ethics: Having strong values that give them the resolve to deal with uncertainty and risk and stick by what they believe in.
6. Having skills that can help others: Having training and experience in a field, like medical or first aid, that they can use when an emergency calls for it.
These foundational qualities are expressed in the right circumstances. In these times, a hero is revealed in all their glory.
There’s a hero in you: how to unleash your inner hero
We all possess an inner hero capable of doing tremendous good for others. Contrary to some opinions, we’re not born good or bad, but we may exhibit these heroic traits differently depending on the environments and cultures we were raised in.
Whether you grew up in a war zone or a society focused on materialistic gain strongly influences your inclination to perform heroic deeds. Yet, no matter your background, you can unleash and learn what makes a hero with some conscious effort.
Nurture and unleash your inner hero with these six steps:
1. Advocate using your “superpowers”
Each of us has unique gifts that enable us to do things that others would find hard or impossible. You’ll have one or two areas that you’re talented in that you could use when advocating for causes that you care about.
For instance, if you’re a good organizer, you could arrange campaigns for climate change. If you create arts and crafts, you could sell your items and donate a portion of the proceeds to send a girl to school.
2. Choose hero role models who inspire you
Choosing a role model you admire can help you become the best version of yourself. You’ll naturally gravitate towards specific individuals based on your unique strengths and passions. Your hero role models can be public figures, like Greta Thunberg, or someone from your own community, like an uncle you respect, that inspire you to make a difference.
When trying to emulate your role models, investigate the steps they took to develop themselves and push their agenda forward. Ask yourself what you can take away from their story and make it your own.
3. Step up when the occasion calls for it
When a superhero senses danger, they are quick to act. In such moments, you can’t let fear block you from jumping in to do what you can to rectify a situation. Your inner hero will require you to step out of your comfort zone and get tunnel-vision-focus on the matter.
For example, if there’s a medical emergency on a plane and you’re the only doctor on board, you would volunteer and do your best to heal the patient. If you see someone being given unjust criticism and treated poorly at work, you can step in and express your disapproval.
4. Figure out your hero archetype
Not all heroes are created equal. There are six hero archetypes in the world of literature and movies. Pick one or two archetypes that inspire you and read stories that feature them.
- Classical hero: A classical hero has great abilities and talents, coupled with cleverness and bravery. Examples: Luke Skywalker from Star Wars and Harry Potter.
- Everyman hero: These heroes don’t have supernatural heroic abilities but have a strong moral compass and adeptness that prompts them to do heroic things. Example: Sully, a commercial pilot who made an emergency landing on the Hudson River after his plane gets hit by birds.
- Epic hero: This hero type possesses superhuman capacities and heroic qualities that make them legendary. Examples: King Arthur, Odysseus, and Marvel superheroes.
- Tragic hero: Unlike other heroes, this type is flawed and makes an error in judgment that leads to their downfall. Examples: Brutus, as represented in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He kills Caesar because of his extreme loyalty to his country.
- Anti-hero: These unconventional heroes have qualities that are more befitting of a villain than a hero and must reconcile their morally incorrect behavior. Example: Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.
- Byronic hero: The qualities that define the Byronic hero are sullen, prickly, and have a rich inner life. While they possess strong passions and morals, they feel alienated from society. Example: Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind.
5. Offer hope and support around you (and to yourself)
Be the person others look up to when they face overwhelming fear and doubt. Your optimism and encouragement will brighten their world and lift the dark clouds surrounding them. Reach out to someone who is ill or has just suffered a loss and hold space for their grief.
Remember to take care of yourself. You can only be a source of hope if it is alive and well in your own heart. Get the help you need to get back on your feet when you’re down.
6. Stay committed to your ethical principles
Every hero will reach a point when they are tempted to take the less moral road. Their commitment to taking the higher road will be tested with opportunities that appear to be easier ways to attain glory. When faced with such propositions, we must remind ourselves of what we stand for and stay in integrity. Doing the right thing may not feel comfortable in the moment, but it’s always worth it, and you’ll respect yourself a lot more.
A good hero is hard to find. We need more brave souls to step into their greatness in our ego-centric world and do what many are unwilling to do. When you unleash your inner hero, you can fill this void with the light that shines from within you. Are you ready to heed the call?
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What makes a hero, according to you? Is there anyone in your life that you consider to be a hero?
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