Friday, February 7, 2014

What is a Hero?

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Rev. Veasey in Cold Mountain.
(NOT a particularly heroic character.)
Strange and melancholy timing that we
started watching this movie in class this week.
This past week there have been many people on the Internet writing about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman; at the same time, the other big celebrity story has been about Woody Allen getting the Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars and possibly having molested his adopted daughter when she was a child.

I don't want to dwell or speculate on the details of either story, but what they have both brought to mind for me are questions about celebrity and heroism.  Our culture seems to have a tendency to confuse the two, otherwise we might not be so shocked when we discover that celebrities are often deeply flawed human beings.

So I'd like to look at the definition of the word "hero."  For the purpose of this post I'm offering two distinct definitions (and both are open for debate):
  1. someone with heroic qualities such as courage or honor or altruism, who has demonstrated those qualities through heroic acts that others have benefited from.
  2. the principal character in a story.
Clearly these are very different definitions.  It is the first that comes into question for me when considering the lives of Hoffman and Allen.  These men are not heroes by this definition simply because they are celebrities, nor even because of their talent.  Have these men done heroic things?  If so, have they done "enough" of them to earn them the label of "hero"?  Does death through drug overdose automatically disqualify someone from having been a hero?  Can someone who has molested a child ever be considered a hero?  Why or why not?  Can someone be a hero in some ways and not in others?  Can a villain be redeemed and become a hero? If so, how? Who decides?  

We all have people we hold as heroes in some way; what is it about them that makes them heroes for us?  And how do we react if we see them display less than heroic or even villainous qualities?  

I also want to touch on the second definition of "hero."  From that perspective, everyone is the hero of his or her own story, his or her own "hero's journey."  And yet, to complete the hero's journey cycle as described by Joseph Campbell, the hero has to overcome his or her villainous urges or tendencies and perform some deed(s) that line up with the first definition of "hero."    

Do you see yourself as such a hero?  

To me, it is a heroic act to explore questions like these, beyond the knee-jerk black-and-white responses that might first arise.  Even if we don't come to comfortable, clear-cut answers.  If you have any thoughts on this topic that you'd like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

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