03 January 2014

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 late friend Errol Alphoso, who educated me with words, grammar rules, information and philosophy, once sent me a lovely quote. 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.’

There 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 observer, ‘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 away.’  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 moment.  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’.  

Malinda Seneviratne can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com



Anonymous said...

I remember this :) from 2011.

You are my hero. Always.