6 Characteristics Of A True Hero

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I’d like to call for a moratorium on the current practice of designating virtually every human being as a “hero.”

Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a bit. But you have to agree that we’ve really cheapened the idea of “hero” in the modern age.

Let’s call it, “Heroism Inflation.” That will do for the moment. But what on earth do I mean?

I submit that we’ve lost the primary meaning of hero. We’ve certainly lost the original meaning of hero.

Let’s explore what a true hero is. What makes a hero? Are heroes common or rare? Are we surrounded by heroes, or do we need to hunt for them? Have we always had heroes, or are heroes recent arrivals?

It’s usually helpful to begin with a basic understanding before you get into thick weeds. So let’s see what the word “hero” means.

A HERO is a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for their brave deeds and noble qualities. A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.

Regarding Ancient Heroes

In the ancient world, everyone knew what a hero was. Heroes were idolized. They were often worshipped as gods. Many of the names of ancient god-like heroes will be familiar. Names like Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, and Hercules.

Ancient heroes tended to follow the same playbook. There were occasional exceptions, but as a rule, ancient heroes tended to have the following characteristics:

  • They did their heroic acts for personal glory.
  • They did their heroic acts to win everlasting honor.
  • They weren’t generally altruistic, but mostly self-serving.
  • They were usually on a quest for something of personal benefit.

Of course, benefits would often accrue to others as a result of the hero’s action. Nations were delivered, curses were lifted, material wealth was secured, lives were saved.

But though their deeds were often phenomenal acts of bravery, strength, and determination… they weren’t so much out to save mankind. They were mostly out to save themselves.

Lastly, we should recognize that the ancient folk heroes were often “superheroes.” That is, they possessed super human abilities and capabilities. It was anything but a level playing field. Ancient heroes were heroes often because the deck was stacked in their favor.

And ancient heroes were not as noble as we might think. Most of them had at least one major flaw. Some had more.

Of course, many ancient heroes didn’t really exist. They were only heroes of folklore. And actual heroes often took on mythical proportions as their stories were told and retold for generations.

Our modern “superheroes” are more or less the equivalent of ancient fictional if not mythological heroes. But of course, we all know that superheroes are just characters in a fictional action story. They aren’t real and never were.

Where Are The Modern Heroes?

So where have all the heroes gone? What happened to these men and women who were larger than life? Who performed great deeds? Who had extraordinary courage and strength? Who did what others were unwillingly to do or incapable of doing?

Not to worry. They’re here after all. True heroes have been replaced by ordinary people.

We’ve gone from NO HEROES to EVERYONE IS A HERO! It seems that people need heroes. So we’ve come up with some garden variety types to stand in for real heroes.

They used to award trophies for winning the championship. Now they award trophies for participating. They used to give awards for excellence and high achievement. Now they give awards for just showing up!

These days… fathers are heroes. Mothers are heroes. Teachers are heroes. Soldiers are heroes. Police officers are heroes. Doctors are heroes. People with illnesses are heroes. Those who take care of aging parents are heroes.

Foster parents are heroes. Adoptive parents are heroes. Those who tweet are heroes. Actors are heroes. Those who have dangerous occupations are heroes. And so it goes on.

When I was in high school (a long time ago), our yearbook had a feature known as “Senior Superlatives.” These were a handful of seniors who excelled in select categories. “Cutest Couple,” “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Best Athlete,” “Most Intelligent.”

I don’t know if they still do this sort of thing, but if they do, I suspect that every student would be a superlative of some kind.

“Most Likely to Graduate,” “Most Tryouts for the Varsity Team,” “Cleanest Clothes,” “Fewest Failed Classes,” “Oldest Student to Graduate,” “Fewest Parking Tickets,” “Least Unattractive,” “Least Likely to Drop Out of College.”

You get the idea.

But not all high school students are superlative. Most are just average. They’re pretty much like everyone else.

I love teachers. Teachers are amongst my most favorite people in the world. Teachers have literally changed my life. But most teachers are not heroes.

Teachers usually love teaching, love students, and love to pick up a paycheck each month for teaching. That may be honorable. Even commendable. But it’s not heroic.

A teacher that teaches in the inner city, who can’t afford a car, whose life is in danger on their walk to school, who teaches students who don’t always want to learn, and who makes enough money to occasionally buy a gourmet sandwich. THAT’S HEROIC! I hope we appreciate the difference.

Have we cheapened the concept of hero by making everyone a hero? Is it because there’s a shortage of heroes in modern times – that the solution is to make everyone a hero?

The American humorist Will Rogers once made an important observation. He said:

We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.

Rogers understood that most people are not heroes. That most people can’t be heroes. That most of us are simply average. Heroes are rare. That’s why we have parades for them.

If everybody is a hero, then nobody is a hero. Heroes are rare by definition. Heroes are not ordinary. Heroes are extraordinary. Everyone can’t be extraordinary. Only a few can be extraordinary.

Characteristics Of True Heroes

So now that we’ve seen what a hero is not, let’s explore what a hero is. That is, what are the characteristics of a true hero? What makes a hero?

Never fear, there are still true heroes. But it’s only reasonable that true heroes should meet certain qualifications.

So here are 6 characteristics of a true hero.

1. True Heroes Serve Others

A true hero is someone who does something heroic for the benefit of others. For the benefit of someone other than themselves.

Which doesn’t mean that a hero can’t benefit from his or her own heroism. But their deed or act or performance or accomplishment is not primarily for their own benefit. They’re selfless in their service – not self-serving.

2. True Heroes Are Extraordinary

True heroes are not ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary ways. They aren’t like everyone else.

They’re different.

They’re brave when others cower. They’re strong when others are weak. They’re determined when others quit. They’re disciplined when others are lazy. They do right when others do wrong.

Some soldiers are heroes. But most are not. Some soldiers enlist because they can’t find a job; they want benefits; and they hope to later attend college on the GI Bill. This is fine and should not be demeaned.

But one is not a hero by virtue of being a soldier. They must do something heroic as a soldier in order to qualify as a hero.

Ditto for law enforcement officers. For doctors. For teachers. For nurses. For firefighters. For pilots.

There are potential heroes in ALL of these professions. But they aren’t heroes by simply being IN those professions. A true hero is extraordinary.

3. True Heroes Take Risks And Face Potential Loss

A true hero takes a risk. A true hero does something that may cost them on a personal level.

It may result in their being injured. They may have to forfeit something of value. They may even lose their life by their deed of heroism. But they’re willing to take that risk.

A true hero is willing to take a risk on behalf of others. If I attempt to climb a mountain, I may fall off that mountain and die. This is not, by itself, a heroic risk.

A heroic risk would be risking my own life in order to save other mountain climbers. A true hero takes risks on behalf of others.

4. True Heroes Are Self-sacrificing

A true hero is willing to pay a personal price so that others may benefit. A true hero doesn’t merely do things from which everyone benefits. A true hero is self-sacrificing. Here are some examples:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Gandhi
  • Alfred Vanderbilt
  • Desmond Doss
  • Irena Sendler
  • Ernest Shackleton
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Oskar Schindler

There are hundreds more we could name. Heroes are self-sacrificing. That’s one trait that makes them a hero.

5. True Heroes Are Courageous

A true hero may be just as afraid as the next person. A true hero may be just as aware of the danger they face as the next person. But they act in spite of their fear.

They aren’t some special class of human being that’s exempt from normal tendencies to be afraid in the face of danger. True heroes are afraid too!

But they act anyway. Knowing full well that danger lies ahead, they forge ahead just the same. Facing down your fears and courageously pressing on is heroic.

6. True Heroes Are Usually Humble

Most of us will be called upon to sit on the curb and clap as the heroes pass by. That’s okay. True heroes appreciate the honor bestowed on them for what they did. But most true heroes tend to be humble.

They’re just glad they could serve in some way. True heroes often shy away from acclaim. True heroes don’t always see themselves as heroes.

This, in some ways, makes them even more heroic. It’s hard to love and admire a prideful and arrogant hero. “Arrogant Hero” sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?

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How To Find Your Inner Hero

As we move on to this next section, you may feel that I’m about to seriously contradict myself. That I’ve spent all of this time making a case for heroes being extraordinary. That heroes are rare and hard to find. That most people, including ourselves, are not heroes and never will be.

So what’s this about finding one’s INNER HERO?

Great question. Let me explain. Though very few of us will ever be heroes in the highest sense, we can all find something within or do something that expresses a commendable, laudable, satisfying, worth celebrating quality. Even if it’s on a small scale.

We can all find our “inner hero,” even if hero is not spelled with a capital “H.”

1. Do one unpleasant task each day.

We all have onerous, unpleasant tasks that we prefer to put off. We just don’t want to do them. So we don’t.

But here’s a chance to bring out that small inner hero within yourself. Just do the task. Even if you don’t want to. Even if you’d rather do almost anything else.

Look for that task each day – and do it! You’ll find yourself experiencing a bit of the hero vibe. You’ll be glad you did this thing. And even if it’s not truly heroic, you’ll feel a bit heroic by doing it.

2. Choose not to do something NEGATIVE you’re inclined to do.

All of us are tempted to do things that we know we should not do. All of us. Yes, even YOU. Yes, even ME.

But rather than doing this thing you’re being pulled to do, choose not to do it. Don’t make that phone call. Don’t write that email. Don’t send that letter. Don’t say that something.

Don’t do that thing – whatever it may be – that has negative consequences for you or others.

Even though you may want to do it – don’t do it. You’ll feel some of the hero vibe resonating within. You’ll like it.

3. Choose to do something POSITIVE you’re not inclined to do.

This one is the corollary of the previous one. Some things we’re naturally inclined to do that we should avoid. Other things we’re inclined not to do that we really should do. So do that thing you’d prefer not to do.

Write that letter you’ve been putting off. Make that phone call that you know will be difficult or unpleasant. Be nice to someone who’s down that hasn’t been so kind to you.

Start eating better NOW. Start exercising NOW. Start cleaning out the garage NOW. Start organizing your finances NOW.

You’ll find that once you get started; once you overcome the inertia; once you get past the tipping point, you’ll be highly motivated to finish what you began.

Which will make you a kind of minor league hero. That’s okay. Better to be in the minor league than in no league at all.

4.  Try something you’ve always wanted to try, but never did.

This can be a bit personal and unique for each of us. It need not be something profound like starting your own business from scratch. Or running a marathon when you haven’t run with any serious intent since elementary school recess. Or buying a sailboat and sailing across the Atlantic.

These might seem a bit daunting just now. So go with something a bit less challenging. Start on that novel you’ve always promised yourself you would write someday. Book an exotic trip and tour the important sights. Move away from the town you’ve always lived in.

Learn how to cook really well. Learn how to play a musical instrument. Learn a new skill. Take up serious hiking. Learn how to fly an airplane.

There are plenty of things you’ve always wanted to do and never did. So do one of them. It will help you find your own inner hero.

5. Help someone out in a tangible way.

There will always be people around you in some kind of need. There are probably people around you in a need similar to one you once had. Find out what that need is and help meet it. Whatever it may be.

It’s especially gratifying to find a need you can meet using a special skill or ability that you have. Then it will not only be an act of service, but you’ll probably enjoy it too. Remember, heroes are self-sacrificing. So you can be a minor hero through your self-sacrificing service.

6. Figure out what ignites you when you do it and do that thing.

We all have things in our lives that motivate us. That ignite us. That thrill us. That energize us. Why not pursue one of those things?

If it’s something that you can become especially good at, so much the better. Hey, people have launched fulfilling careers by simply pursuing their passions. Try it. It will help bring out your inner hero. You might even find an entirely new direction for your life.

Final Words

Most of us will never be true heroes. An honest-to-goodness real life hero. We certainly won’t be a hero of folklore and legend. Most of us will simply live pretty normal lives. Lives that may be happy, exciting, wonderful, and blessed – but not heroic in any classic sense.

That’s fine. We’ll get over it.

But just because we can’t be true heroes, doesn’t mean we can’t be little heroes in small ways. Every day. Seek out your own personal inner hero. Start with the list above. Feel free to add to the list.

We’ll probably always need heroes. We’ll probably always need people to look up to. Who did things that neither we nor most others were able to do.

Or maybe they just never had the opportunity. No matter. We can all exercise our hero muscles on a small scale. And we should. So let’s get on it, shall we?

In the meantime, maybe we can agree to stop the “Hero Hype.” Let’s honor true heroes and stop bestowing hero status and the name “hero” on those who are more ordinary than heroic.

I heard it put something like this: Let’s strive to bring ourselves up to heroic levels, rather than alter the definition of hero so we all qualify.

About The Author

I was born and raised in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. My dream as a child was to play professional baseball. I made it as far as a baseball scholarship to a Division 1 college. I’m a teacher at heart, and love to teach anything and anybody who wants to learn. I started out as a public school teacher. But within a few years, felt called to the ministry, where I spent 32 years as a pastor. I love the outdoors. I love to read. I love people. I love to learn. I try to take a long walk every day year-round. I’ve done that for more than 40 years. It’s where I do some of my best thinking. It also clears the cobwebs from my head and the nonsense that tries to take root there. My blog is Quotation Celebration, where I discuss the meaning and lessons contained within great quotes.