Rory Stewart is a Scottish adventurer, writer, and expert on the Middle East. He is a hero by the definition: noble purpose with accepted risk. He walked across Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invaded, worked in Iraqi politics, and now is working to reinvigorate Kabul.
My friend Jake sent me an article from National Geographic’s Adventure magazine from June/July about the man and his work. You can read the article online here. I am copying a section where he talks about heroism.
Stewart has written quite a bit about heroes, and he maintains that past societies not only tolerated the vanity, violence, and godlike yearning of these men, but they viewed those qualities as necessary for heroism itself. For 2,500 years the notion of the superhuman hero shaped art, literature, and rhetoric and provided a model of how to live. But by the mid-20th century the social context had changed. Western society, with its industrialization, democracy, and new attitudes toward masculinity, stopped forgiving the ambition of would-be heroes. Today, Stewart argues, we are left with primarily one kind of hero, the “victim hero,” an individual judged not on his accomplishments but on what happens to him, like the 9/11 firemen or like Pat Tillman, the football star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Stewart, in a 2005 article he wrote for Prospect magazine, remains decidedly ambivalent about this evolution:
Nostalgia for dead tyrants and the longing for heroes are unhealthy and they can result in the deification of a Saddam as easily as a Havel or Mandela. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we have lost nothing. The drive to be godlike and do the impossible is gone and we will see this loss in music, in novels, in painting, in architecture and the way we shape our lives. September 11th has produced only miniature heroes because our culture has freed itself from many of the old, dangerous, elitist fantasies of heroism …. But in so doing we have not only tamed and diminished heroes. We have risked taming and diminishing ourselves.
Unfortunately the Prospect Magazine article is only available online for a fee.
I find it interesting that instead of looking for a modern definition of heroism and exploring its role in today’s world, Stewart feels the old-world definition is untouchable and laments for bombastic men doing huge things. It’s true that many people today will nominate a family member as their hero, it is also true that people look for the truly amazing. Witness my friend Carl’s nomination of Charles Darwin for changing the world despite great adversity on the Hero Workshop Facebook group. Or James Parent’s profile of Reinhold Messner for pushing to complete “impossible” mountain conquests.
I think there’s a lot of power in recognizing the heroes performing the “small” tasks every day, just as there is in chasing the feats of the heroes who change the world in grand ways.