The core of heroism

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

It says something about human society that one of the common questions that is asked about any story is who the hero is. As we get older, and the stories we read more complex, the terminology changes – not heroes, but protagonists; not villains, but antagonists. Yet in many ways, the fixation on heroes remains – one need only see the types of stories that dominate our attention, both fictional and in the real world. Even in an age when flaws and exposés are a click away, cults of personality still rise, and hero worship is still very much alive.

I’ve written about heroes and heroism before. In April, on the occasion of Araw ng Kagitingan, I wrote about courage as “wise endurance,” as something more than a headlong charge into danger. And around this time last year, I focused on the “pitfalls of heroism” and the dangers of using such a loaded and idealized term like “hero” on real and still-living human beings.

And now, National Heroes Day has come again, on the heels of the truly historic performances put on by our Olympic contingent to Tokyo, and as the nation still grapples with the escalation of the pandemic since the arrival of the Delta variant. Both struggle and inspiration can feed into the desire for heroes, the search for the extraordinary.

The affinity we have for heroes is something that has been part of human culture since practically the beginning. Many of humanity’s earliest stories are epics which revolve around the exploits of heroes, of supernatural feats that changed the fate of the world or the course of nations. These ancient heroes were in many ways indistinguishable from gods in the way our ancestors venerated them, and there is a direct line between that sort of worship and the way religious zealots and the followers of demagogues hold their leaders to be above reproach or the rules that bind the rest of us.

These cults do not form only around religion or political leaders – they congeal around the super-rich, the extraordinarily talented, the overwhelmingly attractive. There’s nothing wrong with admiring such things as hard-work, or physical beauty… but when such admiration leads to granting the object of our affections an aura of infallibility or a license to sacrifice the common good for their own sake, that’s where evil takes root.

And make no mistake, excessive adoration can rot a nation to the core. As Bernard Shaw once wrote: “Beware of the pursuit of the Superhuman; it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the human.” The reliance on a singular extraordinary individual, or a small group of the same, does not only result in the danger of rule by a tyrannical few… even if the so-called heroes prove to be virtuous and resistant to the temptations of power, such reliance too easily discounts our own personal role and significance, as well as that of the larger community. While the pandemic has shown humanity at its worst, it has also shown many at their best, and the extraordinary and day-to-day sacrifices and generosity of the (so-called) ordinary Filipino has proven to be a lifeline to many others.

Such a focus on larger-than-life individuals instead of the larger community is also putting the cart before the horse and ignores why heroes arise in the first place. While bravery is the first virtue that most associate with heroism, the root lies elsewhere – it lies in love. Every heroic act springs from love, a love that has as its object something other than the self.

In his essay “Liwanag at Dilim,” Emilio Jacinto – the renowned Brains of the Katipunan – wrote eloquently about the role of love in heroism:

“Sa lahat ng damdamin ng puso ng tawo ay wala nga mahal at dakila na gaya ng pagibig… Ang pagibig wala kundi ang pagibig ang makaaakay sa tao na sa mga dakilang gawa sukdang ikawala ng buhay sampung kaginhawahan.”

If it’s love that makes heroes, then what kind of love is it? A love for something other than the self, a love that responds to love received. The heroes that died for our nation did not do so only because of some intangible ideal of freedom – they did so because they knew what that freedom would mean for the communities they loved, for the people in their lives.

Jose Rizal’s love for his mother is well known, and the influence she had on his life is clear. No matter Rizal’s natural talents, would he have been able to hone that intellect without his mother’s early lessons and later support? Would he have striven so mightily for independence had he not witnessed first hand the injustice of the Spanish regime when his mother was arrested without evidence, and humiliated at the hands of corrupt authority?

I don’t think it would be so different for those committing heroic deeds now. Ask a doctor or a nurse why they continue to do what they do in the face of the pandemic; ask a trash collector or a courier or a teacher and I wouldn’t be surprised if you get different answers with the same root. Whether to earn for their families or to better their students or to help keep the virus at bay for the betterment of all… it is love that is at the heart of sacrifice, that is the soul of heroism.

Heroes are not born, and heroes are not found. Heroes are made – made with the love that they receive from those around them, and when that love births a reciprocal love from them… a love for their families and their communities, a love that drives them to perform extraordinary acts in order to protect or better those communities.

When we are struggling, when we face despair, it is tempting to look for heroes. But there can be no heroes without communities that nurture them, there can be no heroes without communities that give them something to fight for.

Each of us is part of one or more communities, whether that be our families, our neighborhood, our companies or some other network bound together by something shared. Let us take a look at these communities and what we can do to make them more supportive, more nurturing, more loving. If we build and support that which we love, if we create an environment worth protecting – then we will never want for heroes.


  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with