Hero Today, Gone Tomorrow: Odysseus v. Today's Heroes

By Desiree L.


The way society views heroes has changed over the course of history. For example, Homer’s Odysseus, exemplifies many of the qualities admired in heroes of past. Odysseus’ supernatural strength and bravado represent qualities that were greatly esteemed in Homer’s time. Today, people look to heroes for examples of social responsibility, compassion, and humility, qualities that may be less glamorous, less visible. Indeed, modern heroes do not have to be physically adept, or in positions of power, to be revered as leaders. They lead by example – and often the example is of placing one’s self last rather than first. Even more respectable is the one who lays down his/her own life for the poor, weak, or outcasts. True heroes of modern society are heroes not only because it is their job, but also because personal conviction drives them to go beyond the call of duty. Those who would sacrifice their material goods, and even their own lives, for a stranger, characterize today's heroes better. In this politically correct society, the hero is the one who will fight for the underdog. Social justice, the new battle cry, is about distributing one’s own wealth among the disadvantaged and underprivileged. In the recent example of Hurricane Katrina, health care and other relief workers flooded into New Orleans area, risking their own lives to save the poor inhabitants of this city, and what little remained of their material possessions. As one reporter, Marilynn Marchione, commented, they “stayed with patients in devastated hospitals after the storm struck. Thousands rushed in to help. These examples are very different from the examples of heroism depicted in Homer’s Odysseus. True heroes may be ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and then resisting the temptation of personal glory. For example, in helping the survivors of Katrina, people left their jobs and the safety of their homes around the country to come together in an effort characterized by teamwork, rather than individual heroism. They worked to accomplish a task together, rather than worked to achieve personal glory. In one article, Dr. Rich Tabor, an emergency medicine physician, “got his partners to cover his shifts and paid $520 out of his own pocket for a plane ticket to Louisiana, where he climbed into an airboat and went door to door with rescue workers.” The relief workers of Katrina have demonstrated different priorities than those heroes of Homer’s time. They have laid down their own possessions, will, and personal peace in the process of reaching out to complete strangers. In Louisiana, as patients were dying in hospitals, and women were giving birth in desperate situations, rescuers like Barry Albertson Jr., a paramedic from Easton Pa., “[misses] his 7-year-old son’s first peewee football game, to join a caravan of ambulances making the 30-hour trip to New Orleans.” This story was one of many other articles recalling similar, previous legendary acts of kindness and bravery, like that of Dr. Norman McSwain, who was spotted “[wading] through fetid floodwaters,” to announce the lack of supplies in hospitals loaded with severe illnesses and emergencies (Associated Press, September 9, 2005). Not all acts of bravery need to be bigger than life, to be significant in today’s world. They do not need to involve supernatural or impressive physical abilities, like flying, hauling heavy objects, or other powers that are idealistic, meaningless, creations of man’s imagination, as argued in Kim Clark’s article about the morphed idea of heroism. Heroes today can just be ordinary people, working behind the scenes, unnoticed: “Alphonse Gravs, a volunteer for the Operation Assist with Salvation Ministries, [helped unload] supplies for victims of Hurricane Katrina,” in Miss., Friday, September 9. Serving the needy purely out of the goodness of his heart, rather than for great glory, makes him a true hero. In sum, people today look to heroes as much as they did in Homer’s time, but the rules to heroism have shifted. In Homer’s time, people thought being a hero meant being a “superhero”: you had to move large boulders, kill monsters, escape death, leap over tall buildings, and outwit your opponents. Today, what is most important in a hero is his or her inner character. A hero exemplifies meekness and humility and accomplishes greatness for a higher good than self-glory. In a superficial, material world where most people are judged for their outward appearances, today's true heroes remind us to look under the surface, rather than to "judge a book by its cover.” The meaning of hero has changed over time from “bigger than life superhero” stereotypes to ordinary people accomplishing random acts of kindness that may never make the news. These heroes remind us that when all material possessions have washed away, what remains are simple virtues -- like love and goodness -- that even death cannot destroy.