What is a Hero?

by Lane Wallace on March 17, 2009

We talk about hero journeys on this site. And the word “hero” has been thrown about a lot, since Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed his A-320 in the Hudson River without a single fatality in January. So it seems worth pondering for a moment … what, exactly, constitutes a hero? 

There is, of course, the person who’s a hero in the epic “hero journey” sense … someone who undertakes a tough, uncharted journey of exploration, achievement and self-discovery; overcomes obstacles and tests; learns hard lessons about themselves and life; and then brings that wisdom and strength back to the world to benefit others.

But we use the word “hero” much more broadly than that. So much more broadly, in fact, that a single post isn’t going to get to the bottom of how and why we confer the status of “hero” on some people and not others. Let alone whether we use the term too loosely, how those “heroes” themselves view their actions, or what the impact of our crowning may be on those we seek to honor with the title. But here are a few opening thoughts on the subject. 

We certainly use the term “hero” to describe a person who sacrifices self for others. I have a large, poster-sized print on my living room wall that depicts a child and an East German soldier, the day the border between East and West Berlin was closed. I got it in Berlin, back when the Berlin Wall was very much still a presence there. The photo shows a small boy of perhaps four, reaching up from one side of a barbed wire barricade, toward the soldier. The soldier is reaching down for the child but looking over his shoulder with a wary look in his eyes, as if to make sure nobody was looking. 

The photo was taken by a news photographer, and the small shop where I bought the poster had a note explaining the image. It said the boy’s family had escaped over the barbed wire just before the photo was taken. But in the chaos, the boy had been left on the East Berlin side of the border. The soldier saw the boy left behind, checked over his shoulder, and lifted the boy over the barbed wire to join his family. Unfortunately, the note said, the soldier was seen and taken away. And while the photographer tried to find out what had happened to him, he never found any trace of the soldier again. 

I’ve been accused by friends of having “early morbid” decorating taste, but I keep the photo on my wall because it gives me hope. Here was a soldier trained—and ordered—to kill anyone attempting to cross the border. And yet, he not only defied those orders, but risked and sacrificed his life for the sake of a small child he didn’t even know. If a trained soldier can do that, I figure we humans might just have a chance at survival. 

So … clearly, that soldier was a hero—at least, from where I sit. The East German army undoubtedly labeled him a traitor. Ah, what a complex place the world is! But without getting into a relativistic discussion here, the point I’m trying to make is that most people would agree that someone who leaves safety to take on danger; risks or sacrifices themselves for the sake of another human (especially a child) … is a hero. Like the German soldier on my wall, or the guy in New York City, a couple of years ago, who leaped onto the subway tracks to save the young man suffering an epileptic seizure. 

But Captain Sullenberger didn’t risk or sacrifice his life for others. He and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles would have been, as pilots like to point out, the first ones to the scene of the accident. They were saving themselves, along with everyone else. And … trust me. That’s pretty strong motivation for a pilot. Any passengers just add extra motivation. Landing in a river is an extreme situation, of course. But professional airline pilots are paid to handle extreme situations successfully. They don’t make those six-figure salaries for the everyday runs. It’s for the skill and judgment required to do the right thing in an emergency, or any really tough situation. 

Which is not to say that Captain Sullenberger didn’t pull off an astounding feat. As a pilot myself, I looked at that Hudson River landing not so much as a miracle or act of heroism, but as a breathtakingly impressive execution of a double-back-gainer-with-a-three-and-a-half-turn-twist: difficulty rating at least 9.98. All pilots train for emergency, power-off landings, and most of us have considered the procedures for a water ditching. But to manage the energy of a 170,000- pound airliner so precisely—to execute a post-take-off emergency descent well enough to end up with the wings perfectly level, the nose just slightly high, a descent rate close to zero and the airspeed still just above stall speed, just as the plane came into contact with the water—that’s as close to a perfect performance as any of us are likely to see. Under really tough circumstances, with no second chance.

So, without question, it was a standing-ovation performance—the equivalent of an Olympic gymnast earning a straight 10.0 score in the finals. But does turning in that performance make Captain Sullenberger a hero? Or just a really impressive, professional pilot who did an exceptional job at what he was trained and paid to do that day? 

Consider that gymnast again. We’d certainly cheer the performance. Put the star on the cover of Time, perhaps. But do we consider mere excellence, even perfection, heroism? Probably not—unless the person in question has overcome amazing obstacles to achieve that perfection. 

So why is “Sully” being lauded so widely as a hero? Perhaps we confer the title “hero” on someone who performs a great feat when there are lives hanging in the balance. We laud firefighters who rescue people. Pilots who bring crippled airplanes safely back to earth again. But if that’s the case, then we should consider every surgeon who performs a flawless operation a hero. Of course, in the eyes of the patient and their family, that may very well be the case. But we don’t bring the surgeons of America onto the television morning shows. Why? Lots of reasons, I suspect. But perhaps in part, it’s because they do what they do every day. It would be ironic if life-and-death challenges handled daily precluded someone from being called a “hero,” while a once-in-a-career feat of that kind brought another professional hero status, but maybe that’s the case. Or at least part of the equation.

Where is the line between a professional job, flawlessly executed, and an act of heroism?  Is it heroism when people execute what they are paid and trained to do extraordinarily well? Or only when they go beyond the bounds of their training or job expectations? Is a job inherently heroic if it puts the person performing it at risk? Which is to say, is every soldier or firefighter a hero? But if they are, why do we give only some of them medals for heroic courage and honor? 

One might say, “it’s for performance above and beyond the call of duty.” Okay. But … it was Captain Sullenberger’s duty to handle that emergency, up to and including being the last one off the aircraft. Capt. Sullenberger himself kept saying “I was just doing my job.” 

But then, maybe I’m looking for answers in the wrong place. Perhaps the reason Captain Sullenberger was labeled a hero so quickly is less a product of rational evaluation than of emotional response. 

The times are uncertain, and we crave effective leadership that knows what it’s doing. And nothing epitomizes that better than a gray-haired, command pilot who skillfully and calmly guides a crippled airliner down to a safe water landing, instead of the “certain death” outcome most people would expect from that turn of events. Experienced, confident, capable, and in control. On some level, we have held out those characteristics as heroic for a very long time. And it may be that there are two roads to heroism: through a heroic act, or by displaying traits we consider “heroic.” And yet, a brain surgeon also (we hope) possesses those “calm, confident, capable and in control” traits. So what’s the difference between the surgeon we admire, and the captain we call a hero? 

I suspect part of the answer may have to do with the concept of “rescue.” We consider people heroes when they rescue people unable to rescue themselves. Even if it’s the hero’s job to do exactly that. We fear those situations in which we may be helpless. Aboard a crippled airliner. In a burning building. Wounded on the field of battle. Stuck in a storm drain. Stranded in the rising waters of a flood. Powerless to protect ourselves in a nose-diving economy. 

Any of us could picture ourselves in the shoes of the passengers of Flight 1547. Helpless. With our lives completely dependent on the skills of two (or five) people. Huge scary. So the person who comes through in that pinch, and whisks us back from the brink of death, is a capital-H HERO. No matter what their job description, and whether they did it voluntarily or out of necessity. And if we find ourselves choking up at the thought of his feat, even several weeks after the fact, I suspect it has to do with this primal fear of helplessness we have, and the temporary reprieve “Sully’s” feat gave us from that fear. 

Captain Sullenberger may not have spelled it out exactly that way, but in his interview with Katie Couric for “60 Minutes” on CBS, he acknowledged that at least some of the public’s response was driven by forces and needs beyond his particular feat. “Something about this episode has captured people’s imagination,” he said. “I think they want good news. I think they want to feel hopeful again. And if I can help in that way, I will.” 

There’s more to our thoughts and visions of heroism, of course. But it’s worth considering … if our visceral reaction to a rescuing hero stems partly from our fear of helplessness, then it might be worth some effort to find ways to wrestle more control over our destinies anywhere we can, and develop more command skills of our own, so we’re better equipped to save ourselves or find our own way across uncertain or challenging landscapes. Because while we’ll still have to depend on professional pilots to land our airliners safely, there might not always be a hero available to rescue us from the other crises and challenges in our lives.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Edward Upton 03.17.09 at 10:44 pm

A deep subject you got into there, Lane, and probably no good answser to the question. Sullenberger was much less of a hero to me than to you, for the simple rreason that I very rarely watfh television. From what you say, I suspect that those morning news programs had a lot to do with heroizing him in the eyes of the public. For myself, I admire his superb professional skill in briniging that plane down to a perfect water landing . . . something he could not have practiced no matter how many years he had been flying.
I was hoping you might get into the case of Charles Lindgergh, whom we made into our greatest hero of the 1920s and then some. Suppose he had just disappeared in mid-ocean and no trace ever found of him. Would he then be a hero for tackling the unknown . . . or just a damn fool for trying it in marginal weather and in a crazily-designed airplane with no front window?
I think you are right that rescue is often a big element in the making of a hero. But there are other kihds too. There is the kind of hero they give a Congressional Medal to. For deeds above and beyond the call of dutyh, as you said. If it is just routine risk that he runs, he will get a lesser medal for that . . . even if he gets himself killed doing what he did.
I am wondering how far you may be influenced here by Joseph Campbell. I have seen him talk about mythological heroes, and he was certainly fascinating.
I hope you will take up this subject again sometime, as it is a deep one with many sides to it. I certainly enjoyed reading what you wrote.

2 Mike Singer 03.18.09 at 12:20 am

Here’s an interesting take on the definition by CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman, who concludes that what Sullenburger did in the plane was heroic to be sure, but that it was how he handled himself in the interviews that followed that actually made him a hero.

Having seen the Katie Couric interview, my gut reaction is to agree with Hartman. But I’m not sure Sullenburger would be any less of a hero in the public’s eye had he handled himself like a macho fighter pilot patting himself on the back. Then again, many heros are reluctant, as Lindbergh was when he faced the throngs in Paris. An interesting book on the subject that I haven’t read: The Lindbergh Syndrome: Heroes and Celebrities in a New Gilded Age.

3 Ron Milam 03.19.09 at 10:28 pm

Everyone has the potential to be a hero. And if someone is a hero, they may not even know it. Like tonight, as I was hiking up in Griffith Park, I was reminded of my uncle Ed who used to work there at the Observatory. When I was a kid, Uncle Ed was a hero to me because he was an astronomer and knew everything about the stars.

I’m glad you started this blog and wish you the best with it. May it generate some thoughtful conversations and reflections. Cheers.

4 Lane Wallace 03.21.09 at 1:13 am

It IS an interesting question … if we think someone is a hero, is that enough? Or is there some “objective” measure we should consider? Of course, before you answer that … think about the German soldier. Was he was a hero or a traitor? Does it depend on which side you were on? Or can we agree to some universal code of honor or heroism across national boundaries? Is being a hero a relative matter? Or dependent on the values of a particular person, community, nation, or cause? A line from the 1972 musical “1776,” supposedly spoken by Ben Franklin, comes to mind … “A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as “our rebellion,” Franklin says. “It is only in the third person - ‘their rebellion’ - that it becomes illegal.” Is the same true for heroes?

5 Randy 03.21.09 at 8:23 am

Out society is so desperate for inspiration that it regularly confuses celebrities with heroes, and impressive performance with heroism. I often wonder if the great American heroes of the 1960s like Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, were largely perceived as heroic by their sacrifices rather than their character. Perhaps the emotions of the times made us more susceptible to acts of heroism. But I can’t help but return to the notion that heroism at its core is an act outside the self. Where even the notion of risking oneself is lost in the moment of doing something principled, inspired, selfless. The media’s spotlight in itself almost certainly destroys the hero, bursting the moment of unmitigated clarity with the aftermath of clay feet and logical explanation. Perhaps the idea of a “hero” is at odds with the truth of “acts of heroism”. How can someone be altogether a hero. I sleep better every night believing that there are many acts of unsung heroism amongst us everyday.

6 Rusty Santee 04.17.09 at 7:56 am

Without question, the current abundance of unsung heroes is largely due to the dearth of believable “singers”. The media, especially television, is so ingenuine and focused on getting-the-scoop that human interest is often lost in the quest for sensationalism. Articulate modesty certainly becomes any media hero like Captain Sullenberger. But it should be noted that Tetterborough Airport was his first choice for the emergency landing. When the passengers and crew learned this, they quickly voted unanimously for ditching in the frozen Hudson over another day in New Jersey! (Also, a ‘76 grad would have at least pulled up to a dock or beached her after ditching)
To all in need of a hero, there are endless opportunities to become one yourself. Step up, take a chance and help a deserving person in need.

7 Brian Greig 04.17.09 at 3:51 pm

Hi Lane,

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the term “hero”. I started thinking about the term while listening to “Uncontrolled Airspace”, the podcast. Jeb Burnside has commented, probably without thinking, on the “heroics” of two flight crews, in different situations.

The first instance, was the U.S. crew flying the Legacy over the Brazilian rainforest, that struck the 737, killing all on the 737. According to Jeb, the Legacy crew “heroically” flew the aircraft to culminate in a safe landing. I don’t know, but piloting an airplane that can still fly, without massive intervention from the crew, does not rate as heroic, not matter what the definition.

The second instance where Jeb commented on heroism in the cockpit, was commenting on the crew of the 757 that landed short at Heathrow due to a “non-response” from the engines. One of the other commenters suggested that the crew “heroically” crash landed the aircraft, and Jeb had a small issue with that. I wonder if the crew had been American, if they would have been considered heroes.

A better definition of hero to me, is where someone places themselves in harm’s way so that other(s) may benefit. Volunteers in the armed forces, when your countrymen are threatened, may be considered heroic, but for me, the acid test of heroism is to compare the actions of the potential hero to a local traffic accident.

During a snowy day, on the main freeway in our city, the traffic came to a sudden stop, potentially creating a pileup. A highway trucker, with a full load, noticed his potential to kill the people ahead of him as he could not stop in time. Rather than take the easy way out, by trying to squeak past on the shoulder, he instead directed his rig into the river, so that he would not obliterate the car(s) in front of him. He was from out of town, so he was unaware of the depth and strength of the river, but without regard to his own safety, he took the path that would save the lives of the people in front of him.

A hero indeed!

8 Tim Warren 06.24.09 at 12:19 pm

Who’s to say one act is more heroic than another? Every situation is different, and heroes rise up to meet the challenge whatever the situation may be.

9 Bob Hurley, COL, USA, (Ret) 06.29.09 at 6:06 am

GR8 job Lane, as always. My definition:

A hero is any person who has a choice between endangering himself to do the right thing and turning away from that danger. One who sets aside (manages may be a better word because fear cannot be set aside) fear for the greater good.

10 Sarah 10.01.12 at 10:50 pm

Is there anyway you could help me find this picture online for purchase? I myself bought the poster while I was in Berlin and it was lost in a move recently. I am devastated that I lost it, it was very dear to me since I left Germany.

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