“Well, that was great,” my friend began as we drove away from the newest Batman flick. “But now I have to go back to the real world, instead of the Batman world.”
I asked him what he meant. After all, Bruce Wayne and Gotham City aren’t real, but my friend here seemed to mean something more than that. He went on to explain that there are no heroes like that in the real adult world. In the real world, heroes just aren’t practical. In the real world, we must occupy ourselves with the gray repetition of maintaining our fragile lives. Optimism bows the knee to routine. In the real world, there’s no Batman.
Yes, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent and all their friends are mere stories, but why do we love them so much? Why is our culture so entranced with heroes? Is it wishful thinking, or is it a deeper awareness of the way things ought to be? We make movies about them, we write songs about them; even the mere word “hero” stirs emotion. Cynical politicians like good ol’ Stalin work tirelessly to set themselves up as the hero of their people, and pure-minded children look to the sky and wish Superman could be real. Meanwhile, news stories touch us all with the heroic acts of regular people who charge into fires or floods to save others.
Okay then, sure, we can all agree that those sorts of everyday heroes are real. In times of calamity our best selves can emerge: we put aside our self-interest and dive into freezing water to save a drowning infant. That is heroism. And yet, we secretly wish for even more. The colorful cape-wearing icons that enchant us don’t wait around for natural disasters to force them into heroism. What’s the difference? What is a hero, really?
A hero isn’t someone with a smashing costume. We all know that one. But we still like it whenever a movie hero dons his outfit, like a knight suiting up for battle, because the gaudy costume shows that he knows he’s a hero. A hero has to own it. He has to accept that he can be a hero. He has to carefully consider all the pessimistic naysayers, and still have a reason to choose to be a hero.
A hero isn’t just someone with astonishing gymnastic skills, who leaps across rooftops to punch criminals. Yes, their extreme skills and powers let them do great good, but that’s only because they have a desire to do good in the first place. A flying dude in a cape who doesn’t help anyone isn’t a hero. When someone dives into an icy river just because he’s tough, then that’s pretty cool, but it’s not heroic. Only when that tough guy dives into the cold to save someone else, only then is he being a hero. We enjoy watching super-powered heroes on the big screen because we like seeing people who have the desire to do good, as well as the ability to do it.
Alright then, if a hero is someone who wants to do good, who is able to do it, and who accepts himself as one who will do it…then why can’t we have more heroes?
I think that most of us want to do good. It’s the ability to do it and the self-acceptance that trip us up. Naturally, if we had the ability, then we’d quickly accept ourselves as a hero, right? No, I don’t believe so. Every single one of us has vastly more ability to do good than we realize. We must accept that first. The self-acceptance leads to the ability, not the other way around.
Each of us has been inundated with gray voices that tell us that we’re average. Normal. Ordinary. Unable to do the big things. We may even take pride in accepting our own ordinariness, telling ourselves that it’s humility. But there is nothing humble about artificially limiting oneself. And there is nothing egotistical about appreciating, enjoying, and celebrating the remarkable potential of every person, oneself included. It is the proud and the insecure who feel the need to pull you down, to tell you that you cannot be exceptional. Heroes free themselves, and they help free others, too.
As we do that, as we accept our own right to be heroic, as we acknowledge that we do have the potential to tackle the big things, as we give ourselves permission to look beyond ourselves and see the needs of those around us, then, like magic, the ability grows within us. It’s gradual, like everything in life, but that doesn’t mean it has to be slow. The speed of your growth is limited only by your acceptance of your ability to grow. The more you let yourself break your gray mold, the faster you will do it; and the faster you do it, the more easily you will let yourself do it, on and on in an upward spiral!
Heroes don’t wait around for criminals to pop up. The world needs a lot more help than mere crime-fighting. We don’t need gymnasts who can punch, we need unfit people who are willing to act. We need ordinary people who are willing to become extraordinary. A hero isn’t a buff guy who searches for trouble; a hero is anyone who looks beyond himself enough that he can see the needs all around him, and does whatever is necessary to help those needs. If that means he has to hit the gym, then he will, motivated by the needs he now sees in others. If, instead, it means he has to hit the books, then he will do that, spurred on by his heroic desire to help. It is his acceptance of his own ability to be a hero that leads him to gain the ability to help, not the other way around.
We all have our own needs. But as long as we look inward and rush to feed those needs, they will never really be satisfied. But when we look outside ourselves, when we ignore our own pain and instead seek to help others with theirs, then something remarkable happens: Our problems start to fix themselves. The pressing threats and dangers in our lives become less pressing and dangerous.
Are you having trouble paying your bills? Look outside yourself. It’s a leap of faith; heroism always is. Look outside yourself and open your eyes to the needs of others, and if you seek to help them, then, as if by magic, the help that you need will seem to pop out of the ground at your feet. Are you lonely? Look outside yourself, find someone else who needs comfort, and give them the help that you wish others would give you. Once you give what you need to others who really need it, it will come back to you. Your wounds will heal, your broken heart will glow, and you will find yourself ever more able and excited to be a better hero for the world.
You can be a hero. Don’t be ashamed to get excited when you hear a song about heroes. You know you, the real you that the gray voice may have buried, and you are more than a mere cog. You are meant to be active, not passive. You are meant to soar.
You can do it. Let it be gradual, and let it be fast. Let it be exhilarating! Look outside yourself, and see all the heartache and need. You can help. Look at the needs of your own family, your own friends, but don’t stop there. Don’t shy away from the big questions. When you see the big problems in the world, don’t listen to the pessimism that tells you you’re too small to do anything about it. Ability comes only after acceptance of your own potential to be heroic.
Our world needs more heroes. We don’t need people to literally wear costumes, but we do need people to don their own superhero outfits by accepting their vast heroic potential. We need more heroes.