Living Heroically

Joy1What does it mean to Live Heroically?      This is not a question most people think much about or ask themselves, since most of us think of “heroes” and “heroics” as referring to other people. Even “real heroes” think that way! But making this question personal by  asking ourselves: “Am I living heroically? How do I live heroically?” demands hard questioning of oneself and examination of our life and values, which many may not be ready, able or willing to do.

But I take these questions seriously and personally.  And I am not alone.

The writings of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Jack London, of Joseph Campbell, Emerson, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Camus and many others have sought to put depth and context to the idea of Living Heroically. Additionally, the life stories of Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning), Vadm Jim Stockdale (In Love and War), Jackie Robinson, even young Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) have been sources of inspiration to me and many others.

Yes – these are mostly men, because I have been inspired mostly by men. I know I have much to learn about heroic women – there are indeed so many – and women look primarily to them for inspiration. I suspect that most women will view Living Heroically somewhat differently than most men, due perhaps to biological and cultural factors, but the overlaps are far more significant than the differences.

For both men and women, Living Heroically demands courage – courage to examine who we are, what we are willing to stand up for and how we pursue our dreams, within a culture that often demands that we back down, conform, and get back in line, with someone else’s program. There are so many examples of heroic lives, of men and women who can inspire us to Live Heroically –  if we are willing to let ourselves be inspired. And then, to act on that inspiration.


In my own case, I recall many times when I have not acted heroically, have caved in and taken the easy, less-honest path, was afraid to express my true opinions, did not confront arrogant, destructive, dishonest behavior, turned away from opportunities to confront evil or share hardship, did not give an effort worthy of the task at hand.

I also recall times when I’ve purposely taken on difficult challenges and found myself in over my head, struggling, tempted to but not giving up, and gave it my best effort, under adverse circumstances. Regardless of the outcome, I’m most proud of when I gave my best effort when it really got tough.

But I do not equate Living Heroically to individual acts of courage or of courageously responding to adversity. While it certainly has to include those things, for me, Living Heroically must primarily be a pattern of PRO-actively and courageously going after opportunities – seeking and embracing challenges, not simply reacting well to them when they come my way.

Yet, while such an aggressive, play-to-win approach may work for someone like me, who has everything going for him, it seems (even to me!) to be a bit smug.

Sometimes Living Heroically demands mounting a strong and determined “defense,” when all of our energy and resources must be devoted to responding to challenges over which we have little or no control – tragedy, disaster, injury or health issues, or being hurt or exploited by others. There are many in the world who struggle heroically merely to survive. In such cases, heroism is expressed in a positive, never-give-up attitude and steadfast persistence. My parents also tell me how hard it is getting old – and I admire their nearly full time commitment to responding heroically to the debilitating effects of old age. As we get older, the scope of our lives and our opportunities for heroism certainly narrow. But opportunities are always there.

In discussing this rich topic with friends, some have objected to the expression “Living Heroically.” But I prefer it to “Living Courageously.”  Each of us is the protagonist in our own life-story; I prefer to think of myself as the “hero” of my life, rather than the protagonist who is trying to live courageously. Maybe it’s a nuance, but thinking of myself as an aspiring “hero” inspires me to try to think, act, and live more heroically.

This life may be my one shot. To Live Heroically is to do my best to make the most of it.


Living Heroically is very subjective.   It will look differently to each of us – man or woman, young or old, rich or poor  – based on our personal values, life circumstances, dreams and aspirations.   I’m still struggling to distill MY idea of Living Heroically into its essentials. I always seem to return to the existential hero I studied in college, who demands that we embrace our freedom AND responsibility to choose our own life, and to do our best to live it as authentically as possible. With no excuses.

I have tried to prepare a taxonomy of what that might look like to me, but found that I was altering it almost daily.    It seems to be a moving target, so dependent on circumstance and context. For now, I can only say that Living Heroically has to involve courage: Courage to weigh and confront fears and pressures that may distract me from my dreams and aspirations. Courage to “go for it,” to assume risk in pursuit of joy and my idea of personal fulfillment, when there are so many pressures to do otherwise.

How do I pursue my dreams and aspirations for myself, when my culture insists that I stay on the approved, well-beaten path, and my only serious obligations are to family, community, and nation?   Sometimes it is certainly heroic to sacrifice one’s dreams for the sake of others – our national cemeteries are full of men and women who have done so. But I don’t believe that sacrificing one’s dreams is necessarily or always the most courageous decision.  Living Heroically may call on us to defy our culture and conventional values. It is a difficult and personal choice. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be heroic.

What does it mean to ME to Live Heroically? It is a powerful and important “existential” question –and the answer is more than merely academic. To answer it means to make choices – hopefully courageously.   Periods of transition, like I am in now, bring out this sort of self-reflection.

One of my favorite quotes is from the Roman Poet Lucretius, who distilled all the philosophy he’d read, into two fundamental principles:

  It is better to love than to hate.

Live life fully, even if imperfectly.



11 thoughts on “Living Heroically

  1. Very inspiring, Bob! Your articles always challenge me to use my brain cells to think more deeply about issues that would not normally occupy much of my time. Look forward to next one!


  2. If may I recommend a couple works on modern challenges to the concept of heroism:

    “Death of the Slaying Hero” by Mark Lee Greenblatt
    a review of Tod Lindberg’s The Heroic Heart, Greatness Ancient and Modern (Encounter, pp. 240)
    which appeared in City Journal, March 26, 2016; and
    my own
    “Why Are Victims Our Only War Heroes?” US Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2004,,13190,NI_Why_0404,00.html

    There will be a quiz on Friday.


    • Roger -One thing I tried to do was to get away from defining Hero and Heroism in the abstract. Several years ago, I actually already did write a blog post entitled “On Heroes and Heroism\”( ) and I wanted to make this one more personal. Discussing Heroism in the abstract is easy. Asking oneself, Am I living Heroically? is much harder. One of the key points in this essay is the statement that I believe Living Heroically subjective – and is most important in one’s own eyes. In an earlier version of this essay (I’ve rewritten it 8 times) I noted how our vets are heroes to much of America, yet they are killing themselves at a rate of 22 per day. They are not heroes in their own eyes. My intent with this was to focus on the Am I living Heroically? question, and look at what that might that mean. Bob


      • It was not my intention to high-jack the thread. It is just my great fear that the term “hero” is being diluted of a;; meaning. Increasingly the term “hero” is being readily applied to victims, celebrities, and sports figures rather than those who classically braved great danger. We are discussing a term that will mean something entirely to our grandchildren. Today we know firemen as men who put out fires. In the science fiction classic, “Fahrenheit 451,” there are not more fires and firemen burn banned books. I see the word “hero” going in that direction.


  3. I concur and in my essay a couple of years ago, I made a similar comment. A colleague called his father a hero because he went to work every day an provided for his family. I certainly consider that honorable and commendable. But it dilutes MY idea of hero. BUT THAT SAID, I still think it’s more important what I think of myself, than whether other people think I’m a hero. Actually I get tired of people thinking I’m a hero because I was a SEAL for 30 years. BFD – that doesn’t cut being a hero to me. I’m still trying to Live Heroically – and still trying to find the path that feels that way to me.


  4. I agree that the hero has to do more than dumbly endure. He’s doing something he loves, serving something that he loves, and he’s exploring new territory, like Ulysses, enlarging the borders of imagination and of conduct, even if quixotically, or frankly leading to what might look like a dead end or detour. We’re right to be a bit skeptical of heroes and heroism (hang around with Hercules, and you’re going to get hurt) but wrong to dismiss the idea completely.


    • Reed – you are one man I’d love to have this conversation with, more deeply, and fueled with single malt. Passion and heart are necessary ingredients to living heroically – curiosity, a strong intuitive sense, and willingness to assume risk, to fail, and thereby to learn and grow. You used the term “Quixotically” and it is great. DQ was much more of a hero than those who ridiculed him.
      So much I had to leave out of this – such as where is the ethical component? Existential heroes will say, I don’t care what you believe, but BELIEVE IN SOMETHING! This view forces us into the uncomfortable position of admiring the 911 hijackers, as well as our patriotic heroes.
      There is almost a dynamic tension between being heroic and pragmatic. Pragmatic is what everyone will do. The hero will go for it, against the advices of the wise and practical pragmatists, who live their lives as careful risk managers. We admire the pragmatists who figure out how to make things work, and admire the heroes who violate conventional wisdom – when their instincts prove correct and what they do “works.” As you may guess, I have been much influenced by Nietzsche in this regard. As always, thanks for your comment. Bob


  5. Bob,

    Thanks for the article. As always, we your readers are privileged to be benefactors of your wisdom.

    I recently turned 60, (it has been more than 30 years since I have been out of the Navy), and have a sense of my own mortality. It seems that “Living Heroically” as you define it, has particular applications for folks who are no longer as young as they once were. As you wrote, “culture insists that I stay on the approved, well-beaten path”. In the US…..this path seems to translate into some sort of low key existence after you hit a certain age. Are you telling us be honest with ourselves and not worry about external pressures? And to love ourselves?

    I have a friend;
    He is 90, alone, 30 years ago he built his own 44 foot catamaran, and loves to be on his boat on Lake Michigan. Last year, his kids had pressured him to sell his boat, relax and told him to act like a 90 year old. Well, he felt beaten down, and nearly had his boat sold when he had an epiphany. He decided he would spend the rest of his life doing what he loved, (sailing and drinking Hamms). He told his kids can do what they like with the boat when he is gone.


    • Tim -thanks for the comment. Not sure about my “wisdom” but it is what I think – and from what you write, it sounds like you understand exactly what I’m trying to say – what works for me. The story about your 90 year old friend is priceless. I love it -living HIS OWN life, the way he wants up to the end. Though, metaphorically speaking, he may die with his boots on. Thank you for that vignette. I think I will follow up with Living Heroically Part 2 and share a couple of other examples. And may use this one as well. The question: How do I live heroically? fascinates me. Basically a reformulation of: How should I live? Thanks Tim. Bob


      • Relative:

        Always an interpection will reveal some latent thoiughts, ideas, and desires in an attemp too evaluate ones own personal status in a achanging world. While esoteric thoughtes and dreams have a calming and self serving effect, there is always the pragmatice and realistic portion of life that is dominent! We live with realiizm and finish in the same cult,


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