Why Words Like “Hero” and “Saint” Have got to go.
by Laura Geary Dunson
Have you ever been called a hero? Or called a saint or an angel? How does it sit with you? If you’re anything like me, you’re blown away by the title and it doesn’t entirely sit right with you. It feels strange and awkward and in the way. Something about the word just grinds me the wrong way. The word “hero” has such a strong meaning and such a strong praise attached to a very simple and commonly used word. Check out the dictionary definition:
noun, plural heroes;
1.a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
2.a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal:
He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
3.the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.
- a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.
- (in the Homeric period) a warrior-chieftain of special strength,courage, or ability.
- (in later antiquity) an immortal being; demigod.
6.the bread or roll used in making a hero sandwich.
So with the exception of calling them a sandwich, when we use the word “hero” to refer to someone we are reverting back to the practice of taking an everyday person and putting them on an altar above us, raising them to the status of ‘god’.
Why is this a bad thing? Simple. Because when we put something on an altar we separate it from us. We choose to worship over understand, praise over embody. We would rather take these individuals who have done something extraordinary and consider them the anomaly instead of make the bold and terrifying assumption that maybe their humanity was enough for them to do the good deed alone.
It’s a cop-out, frankly. When we call someone a hero, saint, an angel, or any variation on this kind of language, all we’re doing is saying, “What you have done is beyond what I am capable of in my mere human body”—and what attitude could be better at keeping people from doing the right thing?
What craziness! Why do heroes have to be different? Why can’t we teach our children that anyone can be a hero, that being a good person is accessible, that doing the right thing should be second nature? Why don’t we instill the heroism of the everyday person and the kindness in small, good deeds?
Dorothy Day, a prominent Catholic activist, was once referred to as a saint. She became incredibly enraged and replied, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
I am calling for a change of title. Either we abolish these morally hierarchical words or we redefine them because as long as we continue to place these persons ‘above us’ we continue to enforce the idea that goodness and kindness and compassion for one another is the exception. This is why blogs like the Kindness Blog are so wonderful and such a beautiful representation of the goodness in people every day. But let’s not stop here. Let’s instill this sense in people so radically that words like hero, saint, or angel lose their value completely and instead we are left with a world of people who are just universally good.
For more information on this topic, check out this phenomenal Ted Talk by Philip Zimbardo here.