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.



Heroes and Heroism

It has been a busy week getting back into post-holiday mode. I had the first two sessions of a J-term undergraduate honors seminar this week – my first experience teaching undergraduates in a classroom setting (although I’ve given several retreats to undergraduates).

The Aquinas Scholars Honors Program at the University of St. Thomas is designed to enrich the educational experience of the school’s most talented and dedicated students through intellectually challenging courses and a variety of cultural and social experiences. This includes a number of honors seminars, interdisciplinary courses with a small number of students that focus on “creative and experimental topics.”

I am teaching a course titled Heroes and Heroism. Heroism is something we often view as beyond us. We think of those to whom we ascribe the label “hero” as different from ordinary people. As I explained to the administration when I proposed the course, my goal is to help students articulate what heroism is, to be inspired by the acts of a variety of people on whom that label has been placed, and to help them (in the words of Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo) see heroism as “something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call.” The plan is to explore such issues by looking at some figures of the present and recent past who have been given the label “hero”, considering them through film, speeches and biographical writings.

We’ve had two lively classes thus far. In Monday’s class we talked about what it means to call someone a hero and why heroes are important to us. We then spend some time talking about Malala Yousafzai. In Wednesday we considered Oscar Romero.

What does it mean to you to call someone a hero? Who are some of the people you label heroes? How do they inspire you? Some good questions to consider.

Spiritual Heroes

Hero is not a word adults tend to use very often. When children use the term, more often than not they think of “superheroes,” individuals with some special power that the rest of us lack.

Brendan R. Hill begins his book, Unlikely Spiritual Heroes, which was sent to me by the Catholic Company, with the observation that “No one is born a hero. Heroism seems to be a coming together of background gifts, a mysterious and providential calling to meet a challenge, and a courageous and tenacious response.”

Unlikely Spiritual Heroes is the third piece of a trilogy by Hill about twenty-four of his heroes. His first book, 8 Spiritual Heroes, explored how his subjects “pursued God in unique and inspiring ways. The second, Freedom Heroes, explored efforts by his subjects to free themselves and others. This volume explores eight Catholics whose lives were an effort to implement the social teaching of the Catholic Church as it relates to social justice and peace.

Hill’s chooses an interesting collection of subjects, including a lay woman, two nuns, three priests, a cardinal and a pope. From my perspective, I especially appreciated reading about a woman I had known nothing about, Dorothy Stang. In several cases, I was familiar with some stories of the individual’s lives (Maximilian Kolbe and Jean Donovan, for example), but Hill’s chapter enriched my appreciation of their contributions to peace and justice. Reading about others was, for me, like visiting with an old friend. While I might have other personal heroes that I might rank ahead of some of his, each of his eight subjects is a worthwhile and inspiring one. And the fact that, as Hill says, “anyone who knew them early on would not have guessed…the amazing efforts they would make to bring peace and justice to their world,” provides a lesson that we can all do more than we sometimes think we are capable of.

Certain themes carry through the narrative of each individual. All of Hill’s heroes are people of prayer, reminding us we can do what we do through the grace of God. Each of them, in their own way, demonstrates that the power of love against hatred and destruction. And each demonstrates a selflessness that is extraordinary.

The book is an easy read, but a worthwhile one. Most of what we read in our media is about those who fall from grace. We could all use heroes and here are a group of people worth learning from.