What 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.