Each of us has heroes. And in that, the having is enough. Which is just to say my hero needn’t be someone I aspire to be. I don’t aspire to be Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, because I don’t aspire to be black. Not aspiring to be Irish I don’t aspire to be Bobby Sands. Not aspiring to be Arab I don’t aspire to be one of the nineteen martyrs of 9/11. But for what little I’m sure it would’ve been worth to them, these are the men and women who would’ve had my respect and admiration.
To say I hope I’d have done what they did is incoherent. If I’d been them I wouldn’t have been me, and so it couldn’t have been me doing what they did. But the role this hero-izing does play in my life is this: Whenever I’m faced with something requiring the kind of principled backbone they had, I ask myself, “What would Parks or Mandela or Sands do?”
Note that I do not ask what would Martin Luther King do. That’s because having a backbone is a necessary condition of being a hero but not a sufficient one. I shared with King his aspirations for social justice, but I did not share his convictions about how to achieve it. So I respected him for the strength of his pacifist convictions, notwithstanding in my view those convictions were ill-placed. King wasn’t among my heroes because, put simply, what he would do I wouldn’t. Or more accurately, what I would do he wouldn’t. In my view – I thought this then and I continue to think it now – what turned it around for blacks in America, to the degree it has turned around, wasn’t the march on Washington. It was the return from Vietnam of a half million black soldiers who knew how to use an M16. For me the heroes weren’t the men who marched. They’d done plenty of that in boot camp. For me the heroes were the men who would have used those M16s. And white America knew it!
Ayn Rand was a brilliant writer and a terrible philosopher. But in The Romantic Manifesto, her attempt at a philosophy of literature, the one thing she did get right was the what-would-John-Galt-do account of fiction. It’s not that we put ourselves in the place of the hero in the story. It’s that we import the hero from the story into our place. This is just Aristotle’s virtue ethics said so much better than Aristotle could. The question is not, what should I do? Rather it’s, what kind of person do I want to be? Picture him and then simply do what he would do.
Think of the number of times you tell yourself what you should have said. Almost invariably it’s what you imagine your hero would have said. And it’s when you’ve internalized him, when he’s so in you that he’s there even when you’re not, those are those rare times when you high-five yourself because, dammit, you did say it, with not a split second’s delay and not a quaver in your voice. Those are our finest moments. We get maybe a half dozen in a lifetime. But it takes decades of living with our hero to prepare for those moments.
No, Virginia, fantasizing is not a waste of time. Of everything we do, it yields our highest return on investment.
Not unlike our bookshelves – and for the same reason – our heroes tell us something about ourselves. As I say, not about who we’d like to be, but rather about what kinds of behaviors we take to be heroic. I’m a thinker and a writer and an orator, and I take some not-inconsiderable pride in how well I do what I do. But I find nothing heroic in it. Rather I find my heroism in the man or woman of action, notwithstanding I’m not. I’d much rather just lay on the couch. I find nothing heroic in the soldier, but I do in the assassin. I find nothing heroic in the per se exercise of force, but I do in the precision of its exercise.
I find especially heroic the unsung hero, because the song cheapens him. This is why the mandatory medals scene at the end of every Star Wars movie makes a bad movie even worse. No Star Wars character has ever done anything heroic, so the medal is for just being the one who hit the target. But hitting the target has to do with aim, not character. And so lucky-shot-gets-the-princess is how on-the-cusp-of pubescent boys learn to fantasize.
As he gets older his fantasies mature. But the most mature are not about having superpowers, or saving the planet with only two seconds to spare, or becoming the President. They’re about breaking a dissident out of a Soviet or Israeli prison, and then turning up to work in the cafeteria in the Kremlin or Knesset the next morning. Heroism has to be undetectable. What’s crucial is that a) it could have been anyone but that b) it wasn’t just anyone.
Maimonides understood this.
There is nothing heroic about seeking opportunities for heroism. The true hero is the one who has heroism thrust upon him. This is why the village buffoon, played by Anthony Quinn in The Secret of Santa Vittoria, was, for me, the paradigmatic heroic character. It’s a story about rising to the occasion. And in keeping with the role of the hero in our lives as described above, it’s mustering the backbone to rise to the occasion we didn’t seek that heroism is all about. It’s about what just so happens to happen on my watch.
No one but me can tell me where my watch begins and ends, though of course everyone else has an opinion on the matter, which they’re more than happy to share. The truth about 9/11 is not on my watch. Neither is anthropogenic global warming. That the former is on the Truthers’ watch, the latter on some of my colleagues’ watch, is what they’ve decided, and I wish each of them God’s speed. It’s enough that we tend our own garden, Voltaire counseled. But there’s no theory of ethics that can dictate how far and in what directions my garden extends. Hence, from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “He works his work, I mine.”
I have, if I’m lucky, twenty years to live. I’ve noticed something about men and women my age, at least those of us who don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, and don’t, touch wood, have a loved one requiring extraordinary care. We become a Don Quixote in search of a dragon to slay. And we delude ourselves into thinking our experience makes us better lancers. But at the risk of overgeneralization, no, Virginia, it’s men and women in their prime who change the world. And if that prime has passed us by, but we feel no dragon has yet to quiver at our approach, we have to prove the manhood [sic] we didn’t prove when we should have, even if, having had loved ones to care for at the time, we really couldn’t have.
I find this at the same time both noble and sad. Noble in myself. Sad in others. I’d like to learn to overcome this myopia. I think there might be something heroic in that.