On unhappy cowards and hero-wannabes
The world has always known heroes and not all of them have shown any
hero-potential until the defining act of heroism. The term ‘hero’ is
used loosely today in Sri Lanka. This is understandable in a country
that saw the end of a 30-year-old war just the other day. All those who
were in some way engaged in that exercise, regardless of the magnitude
of contribution, have earned ‘hero’ tag. Let me not grudge any of them
whatever glory that accrues on account of label. Let me instead talk
about the making of heroes.
My friend Errol Alphoso, who educates me with words, grammar rules,
information and philosophy, sent me a lovely quote recently. It was from
Travels in Hyperreality by the inimitable Umberto Eco, easily among the
most brilliant narrators and thinkers of our time. Here’s what he says:
“The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an
honest coward like everybody else. If it had been possible he would have
settled the matter otherwise and without bloodshed. He doesn’t boast of
his own death or of others. But he does not repent. He suffers and keeps
his mouth shut; if anything, others then exploit him, making him a myth,
while he, the man worthy of esteem, was only a poor creature who reacted
with dignity and courage in an event bigger than he was.”
are heroes, non-heroes, hero-wannabes and hero-don’t-wannabes. Heroism
is a fact noted after the moment. There are no guidebooks on heroism;
there are only accounts of events in which the random person is
transformed into a name and given hero-tag on account of doing what
others lacked courage, wisdom, presence of mind etc to do.
Reading that quote made me wonder what kind of life and approaches to
life would make the difference between two ‘honest cowards’, one
remaining witness and the other raising hand and then being trapped
thereafter to suffer all the burdens that being a hero brings. I
remembered an incident that occurred at the height of the JVP-UNP
bheeshanaya of the late eighties. My father related the story, which
involved a fellow civil servant.
Apparently my father’s colleague had seen a JVPer attempt to extort
money from someone. The man had taken the money and got away. The
colleague had said ‘the next time, I will know what to do’. After
relating this, my father observed, ‘there is never a next time for what
needs to be done; the next time also, the same thing would happen’. And
then he added, ‘had it been his brother, that man would not have got
I vaguely remember him mentioning something about character. I am
pretty sure that two people with similar character traits would react
differently to a hero-moment. On the other hand, I believe that the
cultivation of certain values enhances the possibility of an unlikely
and reluctant hero from stepping in when the more flambuoyant and flashy
would pause for the fraction of a second that takes for moment to pass.
There has to be humility and generosity at some fundamental level.
The particular individual has to be endowed with the ability to
recognize the pathos of the human condition, a sense of what is of worth
in a human life and an intersection of such values with the need of the
Individuals so endowed and so unprepared to be heroic and indeed even
averse to fantasizing of hero-moment, when confronted by a situation
that calls for action (even at that point it is read as ‘need’ I believe
and not as ‘call for heroism’), does what is logical (not ‘heroic’). I
think this is what Eco calls ‘mistake’. We don’t need to cultivate
hero-energy for there’s no such thing. We cannot groom our children to
be heroic. We can only teach them what we believe are good habits,
decent values and the virtue of being aware of a moral universe,
subjective though it certainly is.
Life surprises us at every turn and the magnitude of our ignorance is
such that we are never prepared to all eventualities. Someone might be
heroic at one moment but faced with a similar situation at another time
might slip into the bystander category.
We are all cowards, but not all the time. Our shining moments are
made of the chance confluence of the best-streams of who we are. There
is one kind of individual who will never be a hero: the hero-wannabe.
No, it is the honest coward who seizes moment, perhaps reluctantly and
with or without any notion of the regrets that he/she must necessarily
suffer. It is silly then to nurture heroism. It is far more worthwhile
to teach ethics for it is those who consistently refer an ethical frame,
recognize frailty and attempts correction, who will, when the time
comes, do what needs to be done without turning into event-chroniclers
armed with the emphatic but meaningless ‘next time’.