On Monday, I wrote a post on being a hero in roleplaying games over at TPK, my gaming blog. Heroes are a tricky thing in rpgs, and get more grief than you might think. Being the good guy gets in the way of killing monsters and taking their stuff more often than you’d think. I talked about what it means to be a hero, and gave some examples from fiction and reality. But being a hero in a game is easy. The rules are simpler, there are way less variables, and you’ve usually got superpowers to help you out. In the real world, well, that’s a whole other cup of tea. I’m not a hero, though I’ve been one now and again. Over the next month I want to do my best to help you understand what it means to be a hero, and hopefully how to do it. As with any idea, it starts with a really good definition. 

So what’s a hero? If I ask you for real life heroes, you might show me firefighters, soldiers, paramedics, police, or doctors. You might cite examples from history, like Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. People who’ve done great things, people who place the needs of others ahead of their own. You might cite personal heroes, like J. P. Morgan, John F. Kennedy, or Jackie Robinson. People who did things that are really important to you. None of these are bad picks, but none of it seems sufficient for really understanding what makes a person a hero, or how to do it. This same problem came up when I talked about paragons of virtue, and how it isn’t enough just to do what they would do. We don’t always know what our heroes would do, or why they would do it. So let’s create a simpler definition.

A hero is someone who, when forced to choose between what’s practical and what’s right, chooses what’s right.

That’s it. They don’t even have to do it all the time. After all, nobody’s perfect. Not even Superman gets it right all the time.  Though we might add that to really be considered a hero, rather than someone who occasionally does heroic things, you should probably do it more often than not.

It’s a nice sentence, but does it hold up to scrutiny? I think so, or I wouldn’t have written it. I think the key is that the chance to show heroism is linked to when you have to choose between what’s practical and what’s right. A lot of the time, the right thing to do can also be the practical thing to do. Charitable receipts are a great example of this. If you support a charity, you get a benefit on your taxes. Non-profit groups work pretty hard to create situations where the right thing to do is also the practical one. Golf tournaments and other events are like this. You like golf, and were going golfing anyway. It might as well be for charity. A lot of fundraising programs are based around showing people how it can be easy for them, and how they can benefit from it. You don’t have to be a hero to give to charity. You can be a regular person.

And that’s why being a hero means having to choose. Anyone can do the right thing when it’s in their best interest. What separates heroes from everyone else is that they do it when it’s not in their best interest. It’s hard to walk away from the easy choice or the practical choice and do the right thing. that’s what sets them apart. Being a firefighter means taking risks in order to help people, and deliberating placing yourself in harm’s way. There are easier ways to make a living, to be sure.

Firefighters aside, we have lots of opportunities to be heroes in our everyday lives. Whether it’s helping someone stuck on the side of the road, or just holding open a door. When you decide whether to help them, you’re making a choice between doing what’s practical, what’s easier for you, and doing the right thing.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Life is more complicated. It’s not always an easy choice to make. It might mean missing out on something major, that could do more good in the long run. If you always choose the good over the practical, eventually it’s going to hurt you, because you need the practical to survive. Not to mention the huge question about what the right thing to do actually is. We don’t always know which choice is the practical one, and which one is the right one, or even if there’s a right one.

I can’t promise that over the next month I’ll manage to sort all that out. I don’t know that I can even promise to really try. these are questions that people have been thinking about for as long as there’s been people. But I want to put forward some ideas that will hopefully help you sort out some of it, and we’ll start there. When has someone been your hero?

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