The first Gulf War seemed to make every single member of the military a hero. 9/11 made every police officer and firefighter a hero. Anybody battling a disease is a hero. The doctors helping them are heroes. Single parents are heroes. Somebody who pulls over and helps someone stuck on the side of the road is a hero. Save a pet. Return lost property. Stand up to authority. Hero, hero, hero.
Now I’m not about to say someone who willingly puts themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others isn’t making sacrifices. Or that they aren’t doing things not everyone has the fortitude and determination to do. But it feels like by bestowing the word “hero” so readily, so easily, it leaves us nowhere to go when true heroism rears its head. If every single person who enlists is a hero, what word is left for the soldier who risks his life to save his company? Those who serve, in whatever capacity, deserve respect. They deserve appreciation. But it’s not necessary to venerate every single person who does a thing we couldn’t — or wouldn’t — do.
And it’s not so much the frequency with which we toss out the term. It’s the rote recitation of ritual behind it. It’s become as devoid of impact as saying, “God bless you,” when someone sneezes. It’s an instinctive reaction to which we apply no thought, no reflection, no perspective. Just a string of words we attach to someone because if we don’t, we won’t look patriotic enough. Because I think a lot of times it’s not for the benefit of the hero we bestow the accolade. We say it to make ourselves feel better, to be able to pat ourselves on the back on what a good, appreciative citizen we are. It’s not about the hero; it’s about us.
Maybe we see the word so cynically, we’re desperate for there to be heroes in it. We get bombarded with bickering politicians and violent crimes and seemingly never-ending conflict, and we want someone to stand astride it all to remind us that there is good in people. And I get that. It’s why we grow attached to movie and TV and comic book characters, these ideals who we feel embody the best of us. But should we let our desire to find good in humanity allow us to cast so wide a net that everyone is heroic?
Now I don’t think we should never call anyone a hero ever again. I just want us to think about it before we do. I want it to be more important than acting as a tagline in a beer commercial. I want it so that when we hear the word, and see the person to whom it’s being applied, it actually means something. Not to be the twenty-seventh time we’ve heard the term used that day.
Just think. Hell, in this day and age, that may be the most heroic thing we can do.