Friday, June 18, 2004

Why do we need heroes?

Heroism seems such an old fashioned concept. The word ‘hero’ has been abused of late – applied to just about anyone the press wants to laud. We see the ‘working class hero’ who, by the sheer feat of existence and managing to feed his brood is put on the same pedestal as the man who saves a platoon in times of war.

This week, though, we were reminded who the real heroes are. All you really need to do is look at some of the incredible blog posts and eulogies given around the world for Ronald Reagan and you see that people crave the heroic. The tragedy in his passing is that there are so few in politics that can take his place.

So I wondered aloud at what it was that we were all grieving for. Most of us didn’t really know the man – we knew his achievements, we knew elements of his life, we could see his resolve and his ethics through his words and his actions.

I came to the conclusion that he displayed uncommon heroism in his presidency. Heroism in standing up and saying the soviets were wrong, heroism in speaking plainly rather that in indecipherable beaurospeak, heroism in being in the belly of the beast and instructing the beast to cut down on it’s intake of taxes.

What I think was resurrected with Reagan’s death is the memory that leaders – REAL leaders, not just those in fiction – can be damn heroic.

Next Monday we will see another type of hero when SpaceShipOne launches. I have the utmost respect for the men who conceived this project and followed it through and nothing but admiration for the pilot. There have been so many risks and there are so many more to come, yet these people are able to forge ahead and create something phenomenal through the inevitable fear and worry that working on such a breakthrough carries with it.

A quote from Reagan’s speech following the Challenger disaster sums this up so very well:
“And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.”
And we have continued – at least some of us have. Those involved with SpaceShipOne have, those mortgaging their home and life on a new business have, those willing to stand up to beaurocracy, mediocrity and groupthink to say ‘Hold on a second! This is wrong….’ have. The heroic is all about doing something that isn’t the average or the everyday. Heroes are exceptional people and they inspire others in turn to do exceptional things.

So do they need to be real or can they be fictional?

Fictional heroes are awesome and accessible. A good storyteller will give us insight into the workings of the mind of the hero and allow us to get closer to them than we could any person. A recent example for me has been Captain Malcolm Reynolds in the brilliant Joss Whedon series Firefly (That deserves a blog post all of it’s own. I am now an official cheerleader for the Firefly Floozies. I can’t stop singing the lead song. I quote things from the show. I would finance a second series without blinking if I had the funds). I hadn’t realised how starved I was of the heroic and the just-damn-right until I saw my first snippet of the series…I found myself literally slack-jawed at the wonderful feeling of watching someone doing something brave, doing it with the utmost skill and not sugar coating bold moves with apologies.

Much as fiction tries to emulate reality, we all know that the environment and all happenstance in the piece of art is manufactured by the artist. There is an aura of convenience and of premeditation to everything – which is as it should be as good art isn’t random.

Real-life heroes, however, operate on our playing field. They do the amazing things they do in the same reality that we inhabit, with the same rules, the same risk, the same opportunities. (This is NOT an invitation for emails about some people being born with more opportunities than others. Life isn’t an even playing field to start with, but if you quit whining and start working you can even it out for yourself. Deal with it.)

I think that actual, tangible human beings that have achieved their goals are powerful motivators. Like ice-breaking ships in the polar cap regions, they break through seemingly impenetrable barriers and show others that it’s possible to travel in a certain direction. Of course, it was always possible; it just took a certain type of human to plow the way and show it to be the case. Their mere existence gives inspiration to do the same and gives us the proof that it’s possible to follow in their footsteps (the ice is cleared, after all).

One of the men that I greatly admire here in the UK is retail genius Philip Green. In a country of shoddy, dirty, overpriced, dowdy-clothing-filled stores with tetchy serving wenches, Green has implemented a revolution and made himself a billionaire in the process. Kudos and deference to the man, he’s showed me that people here really DO ache for change.

So how does all this affect us in the everyday? I heard two very interesting stories recently, showing two very different choices that people made.

There has been a recent spate of robberies at the end of the Central Line in London – right near my station, actually. It appears that groups of young men would intimidate people on the line (and on night buses) to hand over money, jewellery, credit cards and mobile phones IN FULL VIEW OF A CARRIAGELOAD OR BUSLOAD OF PEOPLE. What chills me is not so much the robberies, they’re everyday occurrences. It’s the fact that they’re not in some dark alleyway or an abandoned park – they are right under the noses of groups of people that have been trained to look the other way. Sickening, saddening, disappointing. The passengers on Flight 93 knew that they had the power to overthrow their attackers, to at least change the attacker’s plans. Here, people can’t be bothered to scare away baseball-cap-wearing children.

The second story is in complete contrast to this. It involves a friend of mine – Michael – and his girlfriend Eva. They were in a shopping centre a little while ago when Eva found a mobile phone. Turning around, she handed the phone to the nearest person, mistaking them for the owner. Eva is absolutely delightful, dazzlingly beautiful and carries with her the naiveté of a child who is unwilling to believe that bad people exist. When she told Michael about what she had done and found that he thought she may have given the phone to the wrong person, she was distraught. They started walking away, but both couldn’t leave the issue, imagining the distress of the rightful owner and made their way back to the guy she had handed the phone to.

The plan was to take the phone off the guy who had it and hand it in to security who could then determine who the owner was. Simple.

Michael went right back and confronted the guy, told him what he planned to do and why. Got an earful of lies, accusations and threats from the by now squirming guy – including some rather intimidating looks from his friends. Followed the weasel to a pub where he was told that the weasel’s father was drinking. Long, protracted BS sessions later, the father actually DID turn up and made the boy cough up the phone which (not surprisingly) wasn’t his. I’m very proud to call Michael a friend.

So what is it that makes people act so differently? I really wonder how much the heroes in our lives as well as our own code of honour serve to influence the way we act.

What this clearly shows me is that we sometimes have a choice between what is easy and what is right, what is average and what is exceptional, what we truly want and what we’re actually heading for. The heroic will consistentely make the right choice.

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