What makes a hero?

What makes a person a hero? You hear the word thrown around pretty casually, hero, like look at me, I spent six months aboard the International Space Station, or, hey everybody, I just landed an airplane in the Hudson River. Everybody knows what I’m talking about, the word hero applied to people simply for doing their jobs. And in the second example, it’s doing your job, but not even doing it correctly, because airplanes aren’t supposed to land in rivers, they’re supposed to touch ground on a runway, in an airport.

hero

Come on, when I was in high school and my car skidded out of control and I swerved onto my parents’ front yard, nobody was giving me any rounds of applause, no, it was just my dad, yelling about how much it was going to cost to fix all of those holes in the grass, which, I never really understood how you can get so angry about a lawn, it’s just dirt, grass will grow there eventually.

No, real heroics involve going beyond the ordinary, which, while you might think my astronaut examples apply, they don’t, because think about it, astronauts today aren’t doing half of the cool stuff that they used to do. Maybe if one of them hijacked a space shuttle and went to Mars, without permission, without even the necessary provisions, and then he got there and he found a Martian space colony, and it spawned this whole new era of interplanetary diplomacy between us and the previously unknown Martian people, maybe that guy would be a hero.

Maybe. But just hanging out in orbit, running space tests and doing routine space work, yes, it’s a lot more exhilarating than say, waiting tables, but I wouldn’t be too quick to apply the hero label. Again, it’s all about exceeding expectations, about going way further above and beyond what people would think you’re capable of.

Which is cool, because it leaves everyday heroics accessible to the average person. You don’t have to go to space, you don’t have to pilot a giant plane, all you have to do is take everybody by surprise with something that nobody would have ever see coming. Like take the waiting tables example, say there was a guy that started to choke, and I rush over to his side, he can’t breath, and so I start pushing down on his chest, I mean, I took a first-aid course years ago, but I can’t really remember the specifics.

And it’s not working, so I grab a knife and start cutting a hole in his throat, a makeshift tracheotomy, but it backfires, I miss something because, again, I have no medical training, at this point I’m going solely off of stuff that I’ve seen on TV. And he starts bleeding everywhere. No, I’m not a hero. Not yet.

So I take a bunch of straws and I combine them into one really long straw, and then I cut myself open and I stick one end of the straw into my veins and the other into his. I have no idea if it’s going to work, I’m not even sure our blood types are compatible. But I get lucky, and it does work, and he survives, and we both wake up in the same hospital room, side by side on two adjoining beds, it turns out this guy is a billionaire, he leans over to me and says, “Son, you were a real hero. You saved my life! And now I’m going to reward you with a huge cash reward.” I’m still not done. I’d then have to deny the reward, say something like, “All in a day’s work,” and then I’d have to go back to the restaurant and say sorry to my boss for missing the rest of that shift.

Then I’d totally be a hero. Because you need that extra layer of adversity, that final level of impossibility that you still wind up conquering. It’s like, again, I’m not trying to knock the Subway Hero, but is that guy really a hero? You know who I’m talking about, right? The guy that jumped on top of the other guy when he fell on the tracks? I’d say, courageous, yes, quick-thinking, definitely, but heroic?

I’m not so sure. He knew exactly what he was doing. There was a space in the tracks where he was able to wait out the train. All he did was position both himself and that other guy into place. Anybody could have done it. No, heroic would have been like twenty people stuck on the tracks, and the train’s coming, it’s barreling out of control down the tunnel, there’s no way this is going to end well.

But then this guy jumps from the platform, he opens up his chest, he’s Superman. He puts his hand out and slows down the train just by pushing it, and then with his super speed he gets everyone to safety before any damage is done. Now that’s a hero, that’s what I call heroics. If you’re not really going that extra step, if you’re not wowing me, then what are you doing? You’re just doing your job. You’re just kind of regular. And again, I’m not saying I’m a hero, so I’m not trying to put anybody else down. But just take a minute, the next time you go to call someone a hero, think about it. Can this person run faster than a car? Does he have X-ray vision? No? Maybe he’s not a hero after all.

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