Who is a hero? | Inquirer Opinion

Who is a hero?

/ 12:08 AM December 06, 2016

Who is a hero? The notion and the question are as old as oral history. Greek mythology is rife with heroic gods and goddesses. The word “hero” is in fact derived from the Greek word “heros,” which means “demigod,” and the Latin word “servare,” which means “save, serve, protect.”

The best answers are approximations. The hero concept is time- and culture-bound. The classical Greek hero need not even be morally upright, like the bloodthirsty Achilles, who defeated and defiled the pure-hearted Hector, defender of Troy and a hero in his own right. So it’s like asking the six blind men what an elephant is like when each one touches a different and distinct part of the animal. Naturally, the answers vary widely and no one accurately describes the elephant in its entirety.


In a cursory examination of more recent heroes and their heroism, three things stand out: self-sacrifice, an uncommon humility, and involvement in a cause or calling. While external, public acknowledgement or acclaim is also a factor in designating someone a hero, as real heroes rarely set out to be so, like our most recent national hero Ninoy Aquino, whose bulletproof vest proved useless against his treacherous executioners.

Heroism may be shown under extraordinary circumstances, such as during a disaster or a war, or it can also be the quiet heroism displayed in daily life. Whether extraordinary, episodic heroism or quiet, continuous heroism, the common denominator of heroes is character, and the common denominator of heroism is circumstance. When the two converge, a hero arises and heroism is displayed. Perhaps a fairly accurate definition of a hero is someone who displays the best qualities of humanity during the worst possible circumstances.


Real heroes do not call themselves so, at least not in public. They may accept awards and acknowledgments of their heroic deeds, but they always deflect attention from themselves and say they just did what they had to do. In fact, many of them are not around to care whether or not they are considered heroes. Which may be just as well, for many heroes, in the unforgiving light of hindsight, prove to be horribly flawed.

Frailty, shortsightedness, sheer incompetence, raw ambition and narrow interests plagued many of our revered national heroes. Nick Joaquin’s seminal book, “A Question of Heroes,” persuasively details the shortcomings of everyone, from Jose Rizal to Emilio Aguinaldo.

When the extremely rich like Bill Gates give their wealth to altruistic developmental projects, it is a practical heroism that entails not the giving up of life but the giving up of profit. “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” must be the realization of philanthropists like him and his wife Melinda. There is the everyday heroism, when we do even the most menial of tasks exceedingly well, when we give ourselves over to values of excellence and duty.

Who is not a hero? That is a far easier question to answer, especially if it refers to someone who thinks himself a hero and resorts to fakery and lies to build his own myth, as in the case of the late, unlamented “hero of Bessang Pass” Ferdinand Marcos, who was nowhere near it when the months-long battle to take it from the Japanese happened, and whose eldest child Imee is distancing herself from his legacy by saying she was too young (another brazen lie) to be aware of her father’s martial law abuses.

We can also add to our list of nonheroes the nine Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of the Marcos burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Their historical amnesia renders them unfit to pass judgments of law that strengthen our moral fabric, putting their worth as protectors of our people’s democratic aspirations in question.

In conclusion, what is the best way to be a hero? First of all, don’t try to be one. Just do your job well. And follow your conscience, if you have one. History will judge, and while we may not approximate Achilles or Hector, the actions of us mere mortals will always be viewed with fairness by the heavens.

Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.

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