My first lessons in heroism came from a moment of cruelty and a mother’s love.
I remember all-too-clearly the first time I saw a real-life hero. It happened when I was around ten years old. I was crouched on the cold tile floor of the small bathroom in my childhood home. Back pressed against the side of the tub, I watched the closed door in fear.
I had locked myself in that bathroom because I had done something to make my father angry. It wasn’t hard to do in those days, as he had an infamously short temper. I don’t remember what I did to piss him off that particular time, but it only took small acts of disobedience to send him into a blind rage.
My father pounded on the door, demanding that I open up. He screamed and threatened. The doorknob rattled as he tried it over and over. The banging got louder and louder…and suddenly stopped.
Then, the door exploded in a haze of splintered wood. My father burst in, carrying a belt. I remember how the light glinted off the buckle as he raised it up. I lost count of how many times he hit me with it as I cried, trying to contract myself into the smallest possible target.
That’s when the hero showed up.
It wasn’t a brave knight out of an adventure story. It wasn’t a police officer. It was my mother. She ran up behind my father and grabbed his wrist as he was bringing the belt up for another blow. As they struggled, my father spitting curses at her like a demon, I saw my chance to escape. I slipped through the shattered remains of the door and ran to lock myself in my bedroom. The memory ends there, as I listened to my parents screaming and cried myself to sleep.
Heroes Go Where Others Won’t
That was my first personal lesson in heroism that wasn’t in a book. My mother went beyond the proverbial pale to save her son from cruelty. She stepped out of her normal world, and transcended the expectations of subservience that society and my father expected of her. She transgressed, went against the established norms because those norms demanded she sit back and watch her husband abuse her offspring.
This was the first true example of heroism I ever witnessed. It burned into my mind and soul a key aspect of heroic behavior: heroes go where others won’t. Whether it’s a hill on a battlefield riddled with machinegun nests, or the single bathroom of a rundown bungalow in suburbia, heroes step into places and events that others would normally avoid.
Somehow, the people we dub heroes find the will to tread where others will not. Whether it’s through rigorous training, or for the sake of love, or simply the belief that other human beings are worth the risk, they rise above the bonds of their limitations and put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of justice and the well-being of others.
Heroes Don’t Have To Be Super
Another lesson I learned that day was that heroes don’t have to be super, at least not in the stereotypical sense. Like any other kid, I was raised on copious amounts of comic books and Saturday morning cartoons. My childish conception of heroes was filled with capes and shining armor.
My mother was a far cry from my imaginary heroes. At the time, she was somewhere in her late thirties. She was overweight and generally a meek and quiet person. Her own father had been his own type of abusive fiend who put my father’s occasional cruelty to shame. Perhaps, in addition to her love for me, her own childhood suffering moved her to action that day. Perhaps she couldn’t stand the thought of her own child enduring what she had endured.
Whatever the impetus, her actions had a lasting effect. Not only did she save me on that one occasion, but afterward my father was more wary. He had seen his normally unassuming wife become something else, something more. There was some deep core of strength within her, waiting for another opportunity to counter his villainy.
We Can All Be Heroes
My mother was no paragon of lofty and artificial heroic ideals. She wasn’t a Greek demigod in golden armor brandishing a sword or a svelte heroine in spandex with the power of flight and super strength. She was an average person, a “mere” human being who was also capable of extraordinary acts when the circumstances called for it.
This was the final, and perhaps most important lesson I learned from my mother’s example. No matter how meek, downtrodden, or unassuming one may be, each of us has the ability to take a risk for the protection of others. The risk doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death. It doesn’t have to be of world-saving importance.
If we step out of the limiting rules and expectations of society that keep us in our place and defend others who are suffering from injustice, we can all be heroes. Our actions can be as humble as coming to the aid of someone who is being bullied, despite the chance we are also putting ourselves in the path of harm.
In the end, we are all more powerful than we could ever imagine. We can all be forces for justice. We just need to believe, and take action.
A version of this post appeared on The Good Men Project.
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