Toward a more personal definition of heroism

Toward a more personal definition of heroism


On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death outside Nicole’s condo in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles. Simpson was a person of interest in their murders. Simpson did not turn himself in, and on June 17 he became the object of a low-speed pursuit by police while riding as a passenger in the white 1993 Ford Bronco SUV owned and driven by his longtime friend Al Cowlings. TV stations interrupted coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals to broadcast the incident live. With an estimated audience of 95 million people, the event was described as “the most famous ride on American shores since Paul Revere’s.”

The pursuit, arrest, and trial of Simpson were among the most widely publicized events in American history. The trial, often characterized as the Trial of the Century because of its international publicity, likened to that of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Lindbergh kidnapping, culminated after eleven months on October 3, 1995, when the jury rendered a verdict of “not guilty” for the two murders. An estimated 100 million people nationwide tuned in to watch or listen to the verdict announcement. Following Simpson’s acquittal, no additional arrests or convictions related to the murders were made.

I am a psychiatrist. As a result, everyone I meet these days seems to think that I have some deep insight into O.J. Simpson’s personality. I don’t.

Frankly, that’s not what interests me most about this case anyway. What fascinates me is not so much what this horror story reveals about Mr. Simpson, but what the public reaction says about the rest of us, myself included.

The night of the chase, I felt as if we were all watching the image of a fallen deity on the freeway. I remembered as I watched the TV coverage of O.J. Simpson in the white Bronco that to the ancient Greeks, heroes had been men of great strength and courage, favored by the gods, and believed, in part, to be descended from them. 

Heroes were regarded as half-god and half-man and were often worshipped after their death. Perhaps this is why many people admitted privately to me that they were hoping Simpson would take his own life and die as a tragic hero rather than facing the possibility of being carried off to jail like a common criminal.

America’s fascination with this fallen hero has compelled many commentators to ask who our heroes are and why. These writers have suggested that many of us have, unfortunately, left this matter of defining our heroes up to the media and given them full license to package our heroes for us in order to dazzle and excite us, entertain us, and when we are disappointed with these heroes, to titillate us with their fall from grace.

One might ask if we even need heroes at all, or whether the concept of a hero might be outmoded. My response, personally and professionally, is that we do and will always need heroes in order to connect our abstract values to tangible human beings and thus make these values palpable. We need role models to admire, to learn from, and to emulate. We need heroes to serve as beacons, drawing us towards meaning and purpose in our lives.

The traditional definition of heroism has emphasized two characteristics: appearance and power, or most often, the appearance of power. I would propose an alternative definition and one which is certainly not new. My definition is equally as ancient as the Greeks but derives from a different tradition with a different emphasis.

When Biblical sages were asked who was strong, their answer was, “the individual who could master his instincts.” The person who was slow to anger was seen as stronger than the strongest man physically. The man who could conquer and channel his destructive impulses and passions and thus become the master of himself was felt to be stronger than the man who could conquer a city. This definition of heroism focuses not on the exterior, but on the interior of man. It focuses on his character and moral essence in contrast to his physical prowess.

Having said this, it seems appropriate to be more specific about those qualities I find admirable in my heroes. First, my heroes face the fact that loss is inevitable. What is significant, however, is that they do not respond to loss by holding on to bitterness and despair, indulgent self-pity, or an obsession with revenge. They have no delusion that they can control everything that happens in their lives.

My heroes don’t blame others for their problems. They accept responsibility for them and seek to learn from their errors. They also don’t pretend that loss is not painful but are aware that only if they face the pain of reality can they continue to grow. They know that failure is not falling down but staying down. My heroes don’t expect to be perfect. They have the capacity to accept their human limitations while continuing to improve themselves.

My heroes are not obsessed with recognition or reward. They are less concerned with their own importance than with the importance of what needs to be done. They are private and not public and are most heroic in their private lives when no one else is watching. You won’t see my heroes on television. They are not interested in being conspicuous.

Finally, their wealth is not observed in their possessions but in the quality and joy they experience in what they have. My heroes don’t revere anger and don’t admire self-indulgent rage. Instead, they respect the ability to control and channel their anger, especially in complex personal relationships. My heroes can be recognized by their capacity for compassion and love rather than by the ferocity with which they can lose their temper.

Most of all, my heroes are flesh and blood. They are real. I know them all personally. They are my friends, my colleagues, my loved ones and, yes, my patients who struggle every day with great courage and dignity to create a better life for themselves.

These are my heroes. Who are yours? If you don’t have any heroes, isn’t it about time to start looking? How about starting with your own definition. Maybe if you look deeply enough, you may discover seeds of heroism in yourself.