What Does it Mean to Be Heroic?

Yesterday was the final session of the undergraduate honors seminar I taught during St. Thomas’ “J-term”, Heroes and Heroism.  In our final class, the students presented on figures that included Oskar Schindler, TE Lawrence, Edward Snowden, Alan Turing and others, and engaged in lively discussion and questioning about whether some or all deserve the label “hero.”

This is the second time I have taught this course.  Part of my goal is to help students see heroism (in the words of Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo) as “something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call.”  In furtherance of that goal, one of the assignments I added this year (a last minute inspiration as I was finalizing the syllabus) was a journaling one.  I asked the students to keep a daily journal during the four weeks of the course in which they were to jot down some thoughts based on a daily examen in which they ask themselves:

Where today did I have the opportunity today to display heroic virtues?

Did I take that opportunity?

If so, what did that feel like?

If I rejected the opportunity, why did I reject it?

I told the students I would not ask them to hand in their journals to me.  Rather, I asked them to submit a two-page reflection commenting on what the process was like for them; what changes, if any, you noticed in your behavior during the weeks; their assessment of the value of keeping such a journal; and anything else they wished to share.

I spent time yesterday afternoon reading the journals (and we talked about the process a little during the final minutes of class yesterday) and they exceeded my expectations.  I was deeply moved by the level of honesty and self-reflection in what I read.

Many of the students expressed that they were unsure at the outset what they thought of the assignment – at least one confessed to being daunted, another thought it would be silly, a few just groaned based on their prior experiences of journalling.  However, their views changed over time.  In one way or another, each of them found  value in keeping a journal that encouraged them to examine their behaviors and they all begin to observe things that would otherwise go unnoticed.

That last was what I found in almost all of the journals: that the process led to an increased awareness of opportunities to display some of the heroic virtues we discussed in class.   One student acknowledged, “It is hard to be a hero when you don’t see the needs of people around you. I think that was the biggest realization I had through this process of journaling. Being a hero is about seeing the needs and being able to serve the people around you. Through journaling, I have been able to look at the people around me and see what their needs are. …[S]mall actions aren’t technically “heroic,” but they are heroic to the people they are done to. Through journaling I have noticed that I can do “heroic” actions in my everyday life.”

Many of the students admitted that they could not imagine themselves in the situations of Oscar Romero or Malala Yousafzai or Sophie Scholl (three of the individuals we focused on during the course).  But many expressed in one way or the other the lesson I wanted them to see: that while we may reserve the term Hero (with a capital H) to the Romeros and Scholl’s of the world, heroism is not something reserved to a select group of people.  They all have the opportunities to display heroic virtues and engage in heroic acts.