When I was a junior in high school, I had to write an essay about someone who was a hero of mine in order to get into AP English. At 16, I realized I had no official heroes. I couldn't even define what a hero was. There was the dictionary definition, which referred to warriors and men of great achievement--not exactly people I could relate with. I guessed it was going to take a little more pondering than I really had time for, so I ended up writing my essay about Sally K. Ride--a strong female who I could easily find facts about.
I didn't realize that it was going to take me nearly thirteen years of pondering the definition of a hero to figure out the answer.
This thought has plagued my subconscious in small, unobtrusive ways over the years. For the most part, the question comes up when I'm writing, trying to craft a hero on paper. Recently, I was watching a KVIE show about a painter in Mexico who did these amazing forced perspective murals, and the subject matter was always the heroes of Mexico. (I can't remember the painter's name!) It was the first time in a while that I had to race from what I was doing to find pen and paper and jot down ideas--this time about heroes, of course. Most of my ideas came out in the form of a question: What makes a hero? What makes a hero last throughout time and the next generations' critiquing? Can you be a hero when you're young and then continue to live up to it? In order for you to be a hero, do others have to forget all your faults? Too many questions!
I could tell you the steps of a literary hero's journey, which I suppose could be applied to real life, though I've found that difficult. (For anyone out there who is writing, I highly recommend that you also understand the mythic structure of the hero's journey as defined by Joseph Campbell. It's instrumental to creating a good story--in fact, all good stories throughout time have followed this structure, so the more you understand of it, the better your story arcs and plot lines will be. A really good book that covers the hero's journey is The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. I have the 2nd edition, but I'm sure the third is even better.)
I can also tell you people who are "national heroes" or what I call "traditional heroes," which inevitably are men who fought and/or died in battle, led the country in politics, or sacrificed themselves for the greater good.
But that's too vague--too all-encompassing and, frankly, to chauvinistic. As I've come to believe, a hero cannot be someone dictated to the masses as heroic. Thinking of someone as a hero is a very personal thing. Thus, being a hero must be a second-party quality, as in, a person cannot simply perform a feat and call themself a hero; a person can only be a hero through the eyes of another.
I abandoned the traditional definition of hero and decided that a hero--MY hero--should be someone I look up to. Someone I admire. I have spent a long time searching for people who fit that profile, which means I have spent a long time evaluating what traits I find admirable. In no particular order they are:
- Being true to yourself/honoring your priorities
- Following your passion/having the strength to carry out your dreams and ambitions
- Being compassionate to others; treating family and friends with respect and love
- Being kind to animals
- Being conscious of the environment and your personal environmental impact
- Speaking your opinion in a healthy way, even when it's not popular
I have several heroes now--women and men who I feel embody these traits. Who are your heroes? Why are they your heroes?
p.s. A few nights ago, I realized that I'd finally answered my hero question, which reminded me of a short story I'd started early in college and never found the right ending for. It's a raw story that makes me feel uncomfortable reading it--uncomfortable in a vulnerable, I-would-publish-this-under-a-pseudonym kind of way. It is, I realized that night as I was trying to fall asleep, a fantasy of a woman struggling to discover this very thing: Who should she look up to, who are her role models? While it is in no way autobiographical--I would never tear books from library shelves as she does!--it comes from a deep place in my subconscious. And happily, I finally have an ending!