Sunday, August 12, 2007

true heroes

Who is the true hero?

The true hero is the person who knows what it means to sacrifice.

I have always made a distinction between bravery and courage. To my mind, bravery is an instinctive reaction. The person doesn't have time to think or weigh the pros and cons of a particular action; he simply acts. It is bravery that allows a person to dash into a burning house and save a little child, to run forward and snatch another out of harm's way. It is an instinctive, spur of the moment, emotionally based reaction. Courage, on the other hand, is something very different. Courage is a reasoned, rational decision, a decision made by someone who knows what will follow, the consequences of his choice and all that he stands to lose. And who chooses that way anyway. Because he believes in a greater good. Because he is willing to sacrifice what he most values, what he holds dear, for the sake of that higher good.

Because he lives for something larger than himself.

This is the person who makes books special for me. My favorite books all include this type of hero. He is rarer than you think. Many books resort to archetypal black and white depictions of their heroes. Many authors refuse to allow for reality. But there are those that do, those that depict exactly this kind of sacrifice. And it's reading those books that uplifts you, that raises you higher, that makes you realize that you believe in something more than yourself, that you too have a dream and that you too will make that sacrifice one day. Because this is who you want to be. This kind of true hero.

When did I encounter him first? It must have been McMurphy. Has there ever been a man like McMurphy? I love him through and through.

McMurphy is a con man. He is in it for himself. His every action focuses around himself; he is an egotistical, self-centered bastard who is in it for the money. That's what his actions say. That's even what he says. So for a while, he fights against the Big Nurse, against the Combine, but then he realizes that he is committed and that the patients were using him to fight their battle. So he gets cagey. He starts toeing the line. He does exactly what the Big Nurse wants. Because, in his words, "I don't mean nothing personal, you understand, buddies, but screw that noise. I want out of here just as much as the rest of you. I got just as much to lose hassling that old buzzard as you do" (Kesey 167).

But that's when Harding sets him right and explains that McMurphy has more to lose than any of them. Because the majority of them aren't committed. And McMurphy gets quiet and then he gets angry. Because he can't understand how it's possible- how these men have been so beaten down, so hurt, are so emasculated-that they are here voluntarily. They're not even committed.

And this is when the great change occurs. It occurs slowly, subtly; change is always incremental. But McMurphy is no longer fighting for himself. Because he has absolutely nothing to gain from this- and everything to lose. No, now he is fighting for something greater than himself. He's fighting for their freedom, to help them, to build them up and set them free.

And at the last, McMurphy is the one who chooses to sacrifice himself for them, who chooses to give up everything that he is; his grand, wonderful and exciting life, for them. He has ample opportunity to get out of that ward. Harding warns him and tells him to get out. But he chooses to stay. Because he's committed, and he has to see it through.

And it's the ending that makes him a hero, because this was his choice. At the beginning, when he was hassling the Big Nurse, he had no idea what he was getting into. But then he learned, and he got cagey. And then he got over being cagey, knowing full well what it would cost him, knowing the price he would have to pay, choosing it, and he put himself on the line and he fought- because it was the right thing to do.
    We couldn't stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-picture zombies that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after the humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.

    We made him stand and hitch up his black shorts like they were horsehide chaps, and push back his cap with one finger- like it was a ten-gallon Stetson, slow, mechanical gestures- and when he walked across the floor you could hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile.

    Only at the last- after he'd smashed through that glass door, her face swinging around, with terror, forever ruining any other look she might ever try to use again, screaming when he grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined, warm and pink in the light- only at the last, after the officials realized that the three black boys weren't going to do anything but stand and watch and they would have to beat him off without their help, doctors and supervisors and nurses prying those heavy red fingers out of the white flesh of her throat as if they were her neck bones, jerking him backward off of her with a loud heave of breath, only then did he show any sign that he might be anything other than a sane, willful, dogged man performing a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not.

    He gave a cry. At the last, falling backward, his face appearing to us for a second upside down before he was smothered on the floor by a pile of white uniforms, he let himself cry out:

    A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn't care any more about anything but himself and his dying.

    ~One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 267
McMurphy chose to do this in order to set them all free; he knew the cost and what it would mean for him, that he was going to die. And he did it anyway.

But it is not only this obvious sacrifice that makes someone a hero. It is the sacrifice of anything that one cares for for the sake of a higher good; it need not be one's life. Dying is the most extreme example. A true hero is someone who does not make his decision in the heat of the moment but who makes it after much reflection and thought, who comes to his decision rationally and coolly, who truly understands his choice and will follow through on it. Such a person is Frodo Baggins.

In perhaps the most chilling scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, everyone remains silent, wondering who will embark upon this suicidal task. This is one of the great errors in Peter Jackson's film version, for he turns the scene into a brawl and a fight, which Frodo ends by exclaiming, "I will take the ring!" But there is a quiet power to the way in which Tolkien structures the scene. Everyone has heard about this ring of doom and the impossible burden and toll it will take upon its bearer. And then:
    No one answered. The noon-bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell upon him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

    "I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way."

    ~The Fellowship of the Ring, 303
Do you see the great and quiet power in this statement? Frodo is not forced. Nobody looks at him and attempts to force him to feel guilty so that he will take the Ring. There is no prophecy that states that he must fulfill this destiny. It is his choice, his absolute, free and total choice. And it is not a decision he comes to lightly for he wants to remain at Rivendell, where it is safe; he wants to bask in the peace and quiet and light that is the Elves' domain. But he knows that there is something greater than him, something beyond him that is at stake, and he makes the conscious choice to give up something precious to him, knowing the consequences, for the sake of this higher good.

And he pays. He pays dearly. As he explains to Sam:
    So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

    The Return of the King, 345
That is the quote that shocks you with its truth. Frodo can never again be one with his fellow Hobbits; he is too different from them, he has seen too much; he is burdened with feelings, thoughts and memories they cannot possibly understand. He is wounded and his wound will never really heal. He has saved the Shire, but it has not been saved for him. And he accepts this; he understands that he must sacrifice what he once loved so dearly- and yet loves- for the sake of Middle Earth. He knew what he was getting into when he volunteered for this mission, though perhaps he did not know the extent of it, and he did it anyway. And it is that- that choice, and the subsequent sacrifice- that makes him a true hero.

The same happens with Prince Lir and Lady Amalthea in The Last Unicorn. Lady Amalthea protests and tells Lir that he should not allow the magician to change her back into a unicorn. She tells him of the consequences, makes it very clear that as a unicorn she will not and cannot love him, despite his love for her. She is willing to live out the rest of her days as a mortal and to forego her quest. But Prince Lir is a hero. And in a sad but infinitely beautiful statement, he informs her:

    The word escaped him as suddenly as a sneeze, emerging in a questioning squeak- the voice of a silly young man mortally embarrassed by a rich and terrible gift. "No," he repeated and this time the word tolled in another voice, a king's voice: not Haggard, but a king whose grief was not for what he did not have, but for what he could not give.

    "My lady," he said, "I am a hero. It is a trade, no more, like weaving or brewing, and like them it has its own tricks and knacks and small arts. There are ways of perceiving witches and of knowing poison streams; there are certain weak spots that all dragons have, and certain riddles that hooded strangers tend to set you. But the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock at the witch's door when she is away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned, prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story."

    The Lady Amalthea did not answer him. Schmendrick asked, "Why not? Who says so?"

    "Heroes," Prince Lir replied sadly. "Heroes know about order, about happy endings- heroes know that some things are better than others. Carpenters know grains and shingles, and straight lines." He put his hands out to the Lady Amalthea, and took one step toward her. She did not draw back from him, nor turn her face; indeed, she lifted her head higher, and it was the prince who looked away.

    ~The Last Unicorn, 179-180
The prince will not allow Amalthea to abandon her quest and remain a mortal; he believes that she must finish what she began, must rescue the unicorns. It is true that perhaps he does not let himself believe what she has told him, that she will not love him when she is a unicorn. Perhaps he deludes himself. But it is clear that he knows what the consequences of his decision will be, his decision to prevent his own happiness and to allow for her to complete her task. And though it is not the decision he wishes to make, though he wishes to wed her and keep her and love her, he allows her to be free and to do what she has come to do, even though she has forgotten herself. And this proves to be his great and terrible sacrifice- for in allowing her to free the unicorns, he loses his claim upon her; she is no longer a human but immortal, and she can no longer be his.

But perhaps the greatest hero is Taran Wanderer. He wishes to wed the Princess Eilonwy, but wants to be worthy of her. He therefore goes on a journey to find out who he is, hoping that he is of noble birth. He is obsessed with visions of glory and honor, of the birth that is his by right and the fact that he would then be able to ask for her hand in marriage. But his journey is one of discovery, and by the end of it he has realized the truth about his dreams.
    "When I was a child I dreamed of adventure, glory, of honor in feats of arms. I think now that these things are shadows."

    "If you see them as shadows then you see them for what they are," Annlaw agreed. "Many have pursued honor, and in the pursuit lost more of it than ever they could gain. But I did not mean a hired sword..."

    Taran Wanderer, 261
The potter sends Taran to look into a pool of supposedly enchanted water, wherein he will see himself as he truly is. Taran looks into the pool (which is an ordinary pool; there is no enchantment laid upon it) and returns, having finally found himself and realized the truth. He sacrifices his dreams, his desire to prove that he is of noble birth and of noble blood. He sacrifices every image of himself that is based on fantasies and pursues the reality.
    "As for my parentage," he added, "it makes little difference. True kinship has naught to do with blood ties, however strong they may be. I think we are all kin, brothers and sisters one to the other, all children of all parents. And the birthright I once sought, I seek it no longer. The folk of the Free Commots taught me well, that manhood is not given but earned. Even King Smoit in Cantrev Cadiffor told me this, but I did not heed him.

    "Llonio said life was a net for luck; to Hevydd the Smith life was a forge; and to Dwyvach the Weaver-Woman a loom. They spoke truly, for it is all of these. But you," Taran said, his eyes meeting the potter's, "you have shown me life is one thing more. It is clay to be shaped, as raw clay on a potter's wheel."

    ~Taran Wanderer, 271
To choose a path and to choose it of one's own volition, to know the consequences of one's actions and all that one stands to lose- and to choose that path anyway- is a rare and courageous action. These men are heroes, all of them. McMurphy, who chooses to sacrifice his life for the sake of his fellows, in order to set them free. Frodo, who sacrifices his life as well, his joy and pleasure and his very hometown and relationship to his fellows, in order to save the Shire. Lir, who sacrifices the Lady Amalthea in order to enable her to fulfill her quest. And Taran, who sacrifices the hopes and dreams he cherished for so long in favor of a true and more difficult reality, one based on the fact that a man earns his place in the world, but it is not given to him.

I have wondered for a long time what it is that I would have to sacrifice. And I have wondered whether I would have the courage to do so, knowing the price, knowing the consequences, knowing full well what it would cost.

I think I know now.

And as for the rest, only time will tell.


Anonymous said...

The Greatest Computer Game Ending Of All Time:

There is an old RPG game called Fallout. In this game, you - a member of a post-apocalypse vault - are chosen to leave and find a water chip for your Vault. Apparently the vault's water chip has broken, and they need a repair. And for the first time in a hundred years, you leave the vault for the nuclear wasteland.

And you find the chip. Among other things - a mutant conspiracy, a number of frontier towns, civil war, and a religious cult. But you find the chip and bring it back to your Vault. And then you go out again and save your Vault from possible destruction at the hands of a group of mutant sociopaths.

And finally, you return to your vault. The Vault Leader is waiting for you outside the vault - which is unusual. Generally, you need to go down to the 3rd floor to meet him in the control room. But here he is, standing outside the enormous vault padlock door. And he thanks you very much.

And then informs you that you can't be allowed back inside. You've seen too much of the world. You'd be a bad influence on the vault dwellers - they'd want to see the world too. So he asks you to leave.

The final cutscene shows you walking off into the sandy distances, and the theme song of Fallout begins to play;

Maybe you'll think of me.
When you are all alone.
Maybe the one who is waiting for you,
Will prove untrue, then what will you do?
Maybe you'll sit and sigh,
Wishing that I were near.
Then maybe you'll ask me to
Come back again
And maybe I'll say "Maybe"

ilan said...

Orson Scott Card repeatedly does this well, and takes it to an extreme. He most often tells the story of one solitary person who (even if he/she has friends) must bear a heavier burden than anyone deserves, because no one can do so better, and it must be done.

By the way, Chana, have you ever read anything by Neil Gaiman? He does fantasy that feel so totally different than your typical swords-magic-dragons fare that I think it might deserve another category.

Anonymous said...

I have wondered for a long time what it is that I would have to sacrifice. And I have wondered whether I would have the courage to do so, knowing the price, knowing the consequences, knowing full well what it would cost.

Yes, that's how I've been feeling recently. Maybe not exactly; I'm not quite exactly sure what I'd be sacrificing, although I'm sure there would be sacrifices, if only to my peace of mind. But I know what needs doing, and I'm quite sure that if don't do it, no one will, I'm just still uncertain if I can actually do it.

e-kvetcher said...

The Impression that I get

Chana said...

Mordy, Ilan, Daniel and E-kvetcher,

I'm so glad you all understand what I mean. Mordy, that game sounds beautiful, although I am sure you realize it's a little different from what I mean, because the man did not know going into it what he was going to lose. Ilan, I love Neil Gaiman and have read all his books; he's one of my favorites. Of his works, I love Neverwhere and American Gods. Daniel, yes, it is quite hard to actually choose to act. That is another distinction between bravery and courage. Bravery is a reaction. One reacts to a stimulus. You see a child standing in the street or in a burning house and you run; it is instinctive and uncontrollable. Courage is an actual action; you begin the process. It is therefore, of couse, much harder. E-kvetcher, I'd never seen or heard that song before, but it's absolutely true. The only difference is that in my conception of the world, one has to choose the test, not wait until he is tested.

Mordy, back to your point- it actually fits better with the ideas similar to this brought by the Torah. The most famous is probably Moses. Moses led the people through the desert; he was the absolute greatest leader. And yet he had to give up his right to enter the land. He begged and pleaded with God to no avail and finally he accepted his fate. This was his sacrifice. He did not choose it, but he had to accept it.

The same occurs by David. David fights so many battles for God, hoping to build and create His dwelling place on earth, the Temple. But this is forbidden him. David so desires to erect this temple and monument to God, but he is not allowed to do so. This is his sacrifice.

The most obvious example of sacrifice in Tanakh is that of Isaac by Abraham, but in that case, Isaac does not necessarily choose (although the midrash says he does;) the focus is more on Abraham and the fact that Abraham is willing to sacrifice what is most precious to him to prove his love and devotion to God.

Anonymous said...

“Who is the true hero? The true hero is the person who knows what it means to sacrifice.”

You call to my mind a relevant passage from Ronnie Zeigler's analysis of the Rav's "Catharsis".

In contrast to the Rav's redefinition of catharsis, his redefinition of heroism is more subtle. He begins by presenting gevura as military victory, then gradually changes our understanding of it to include bold action taken contrary to pragmatic reasoning, and ends up by defining it as the paradoxical strength to withdraw, not to consummate victory.

This is a good example of a common phenomenon in Rav Soloveitchik's writings. He takes loaded terms which carry positive connotations in the ears of modern man - e.g. heroism, boldness, creativity, mastery, autonomy - and shows that they are really demanded by Judaism. These terms would seem to many to be the very antithesis of Jewish religiosity, which they perceive as being conservative to the point of ossification, and submissive to the point of slavishness. So what is the Rav doing when he applies these epithets to halakhic life? One of two things: either 1) informing us that these qualities, as we commonly understand them, are actually Jewish values; or 2) reinterpreting them (sometimes subtly) and showing us that the new understanding is part of Judaism. Clearly, we have here an instance of the second type. For the Rav, there is more heroism in humility than in majesty.

Why, then, does he use the term "heroic"? Again, there are two possibilities.

1) This could be a pedagogical device geared to make halakhic life more attractive to modern man - we have positive associations with the word "heroic," so we will be attracted to something described this way. Eventually, we will come to appreciate the values inherent in the new definition of heroism.

2) He is uncovering a deeper or more authentic meaning of the term. At the core of the concept of heroism (or creativity, autonomy, etc.), there is a powerful idea which, over the generations, has been covered with layers of dross. If we remove some of our preconceived notions, if we perceive things within a framework of kedusha and avodat Hashem, then we will behold the positive root of the idea in its pristine purity. Or, perhaps, in another formulation: the idea itself is neutral and can be turned in better or worse directions depending on the surrounding framework within which we see it.

Scraps said...

I don't know if I've ever been in the position to have to make such a decision. And part of me is very scared to ever be in that position, because I'm not sure if I'd really make the right decision. I'd like to think I would, but when you get right down to it, I just don't know...

e-kvetcher said...

>E-kvetcher, I'd never seen or heard that song before

Well, here you go! it is actually a very good song...

Holy Hyrax said...

oh why oh why did Frodo have to leave?

Couldn't Gandalf just propose to fly in to Mordor with the eagles and just drop the ring from the air? Saving all the hassle!

Stubborn and Strong said...

Did u just wrote about bravery and courage and what is the different between them. you were talking about them because what harry potter did?? Or is it in my mind?

Anonymous said...

I think the true hero in Tolkien's story is Sam, the most faithful and reliable friend imaginable. He took the big part of Frodo's burden, never left him no matter if his "master's" recognition was there or not.

Anonymous said...

And with the Prince Lir and Lady Amalthea, wasn't Lir's "heroic" act just the fear of responsibility? Woudn't he be scared of his beloved one getting old and reproaching him for withdrawing her from her ultimate quest? Or scared of upcoming yearning in her eyes for her incomplete task, for her lost brethen, for her immortality?
I didn't feel he was doing hero's stuff, rather ordinary, that is to say pusillanimously noble, man's stuff.

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