Rethinking the Meaning of Heroism, With an 8-Year-Old’s Help
Recently I was zooming with Sue, a dear friend I’ve known since middle school. Sue had battled breast cancer years ago, and won. Because of this people often label her “heroic.”
“I don’t like it when people call me heroic.” she said, “What does that mean? If I’m heroic for surviving, does this mean women who fought just as hard as I did, but didn’t make it, aren’t heroic? I mean, the antonym of heroic is cowardly.” As we were pondering this point, Sue’s 8 year old daughter Claire walked into the room, brushing the hair of a Barbie once owned by her grandmother, and dropped this little nugget,
“Heroism is when you take a risk for another person even though it may hurt yourself.”
Ummm. Ok. That was a better definition than anything we came up with. I asked Claire if you could be heroic if you stood up for yourself. Without missing a beat Claire said, “I don’t know. I think that’s another word, but maybe you could call that self-heroism.”
I began asking rapid fire questions. What else could this eight year old girl come up with?
“Claire, can you use the word ‘grit’ in a sentence!”
She wasn’t sure what it meant. We read her the definition. Over the next hour, as Claire popped in and out of the room. I asked her about four words total: Grit. Kindness. Love. Heroism. I believe those four words, when combined, form the foundation of character. Her answers left me moved, and made me think.
I got off the phone I began researching the words, comparing her sentences about each word to what’s in the dictionary. Claire said I could share her sentences with you. Thanks Claire. We all could use a little Claire wisdom.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CLAIRE
GRIT: DO FOR OTHERS, DAY IN AND DAY OUT
“The teacher showed grit because even though she was in lockdown because of the coronavirus she still wanted to teach the kids.”
“He displayed the true grit of the navy pilot.”
Google the word grit. It is often applied to men and used as a descriptor for folks who are in glamorous, dangerous, or high paying jobs. This, however, is a very small part of the population. Claire sees grit as helping others, day in and day out. It’s not glamorous. It’s not dangerous. It doesn’t make you rich. What it does, is make a difference in the lives of others.
KIND: DO HARD THINGS FOR THE PEOPLE YOU CARE ABOUT
“The girl showed kindness when she stood up to the bully to help her friend.”
“He thanked them for their kindness and support.”
Kindness is often used as a platitude. “That’s very kind of you.” For Claire, kindness isn’t a platitude you throw around easily. It is a very special word for principled people. Kindness is about hard deeds, for example, a young girl standing up for her friend. In the world of Claire, kindness is active, purposeful and principled, and often it’s hard. It is a hefty, powerful word, and those who possess it do not buckle under pressure.
HEROISM: COMMIT TO HELPING THOSE MORE VULNERABLE WHEN THEY ARE IN CRISES
“The woman used her heroism to save the man who was hurt badly.”
And she offered another one.
“The doctor used heroism to save the patient.”
(I looked up two, as Claire gave me two.)
“They fought with exemplary heroism.”
“He showed great heroism in battle.”
Heroism is another one of those words traditionally bestowed upon men, and the term often involves violence on behalf of one’s community combined with a fight for personal survival. To Claire, heroism isn’t about fighting or violence. It’s about nurturing and healing.
And finally, love.
LOVE: FAMILY LOVE COMES FIRST, AND DON’T FORGET TO SHOW IT
There was so much love in the family that they all hugged.
He had love for his work.
Oh, Amy, I love you.
The love of our family, whether by birth or the family of our choosing, is a special kind of love. Every human should be fortunate enough have it, from the time we are born until the moment we die. Work is important, but not more than family. Romantic love is wonderful, but it can be fickle. For Claire, family is love, and when you have, “so much” love for a person, you show it. Children who grow up in families where they prioritize love for each other, and embrace showing that love, are incredibly lucky. They see familial love as foundational. They learn not to hide their love or fear their love. And for the rest of their lives, their approach to love, in all it’s different forms, is more healthy and successful.
Grit. Kindness. Love. Heroism.
This past year there has been so much suffering, so much heartbreak. What has uplifted us and pulled us through? Our stories, stories about grit, kindness, love, and heroism. We realized the real power of these words, and how our society would simply cease to function without them.
Did Claire understand things because she’s young? Did growing up in a pandemic, when what matters is changing, shift her perspective? Did she value family more because she’s been trapped with her loving family all year, and they have become her world? I don’t know. What I do know is this year people are all beginning to see things through the eyes of a very wise eight year old girl. How we see the world is shifting, and the way we approach our lives, and each other, is shifting with it. For that, we are very fortunate.
Thank you to Sue and Claire, for helping me remain an oppositional optimist who has enough hope to claim space.