Some words are used so often and for so many reasons that they soon lose real meaning. An easy example is the word, “amazing”; if the word “amazing” really meant “causing astonishment and wonder,” I know many people who would spend their lives in a constant state of bewilderment because they describe everything as “amazing”: TV shows, books, movies, videogames, restaurants, flavors, songs, places, people, actions…everything. The word “amazing” doesn’t really tell us anything anymore.
Another word losing its meaning through overuse is “hero.” These days, anyone who achieves something difficult or survives something terrible or exhibits some rare quality is called a hero. These people may be determined or brave or outstanding, but I’d like to conserve the word “hero” for something exceptionally special. "Hero" is an important word worth protecting.
I got this idea from my father, who—having survived World War II—claimed that heroism was something more exceptional, something rarer, something deeper than just doing one’s duty, or doing one’s best. When he’d tell the story of enlisting in the Marines in 1943 at the age of 17, many people would respond with a comment about his being a hero. “No,” he’d say, “I was no hero…I simply did what everybody knew they had to do.” He enlisted, and he believed that his contemporaries enlisted, because they had a sense of obligation and expectation.
In his experience—he conveyed this sense of real heroism to me—a hero is someone who does the very difficult even when not doing it would be quickly accepted. That was the differentiating feature of heroism: doing more than one’s duty, more than what’s expected. In his experience, a hero was that rare person who took the risk or pushed the limit even when it would have been reasonable to play it safe. Enlisting wasn’t heroic…giving your life, leading a deadly charge, saving a buddy in combat—that was heroic.
I think readily of the First Responders on 9/11/2001 who entered the Trade Centers and the Pentagon and the passengers who stormed the cockpit on United Flight 93 as true heroes. Who among the living would question or criticize if any one of them had stopped to reconsider entering those situations? If a firefighter or police officer or EMT had stopped at the base of the towers and thought, “Let’s see how this develops,” wouldn’t we all have thought it reasonable? If the men and women on Flight 93 had waited to see what the hijackers were really going to do, wouldn’t we all have thought it reasonable? Instead, First Responders and common people demonstrated real heroism by doing exceptional things, amazing things…more than their duty, more than anyone expected of them, probably more than they expected of themselves.
On June 6, 2014, I landed at the Paris airport and hailed a taxi to take me into the city. Soon we were caught in a terrific traffic jam and the driver apologized, “There are many delays today because of the (70th) anniversary of the Normandy Invasion…you know the Normandy Invasion?” I told him that, yes, I knew it and my father had been there on a battleship. “Oh, your father is a hero!” he very kindly said. I was tempted to correct him, because my father would have wanted me to, by explaining that my father had just done his duty…while many others had been heroic. But I let it go and said, “Thanks. There were many heroes there that day.”