Elementary heroes

Every hero in every story worth telling has at least one thing in common with every other decent hero ever written. Each one must face an enemy that is absolutely, one hundred percent matched to his own skills and strengths. This is the one enemy that can utterly destroy the hero, the one enemy that he must face alone, the one enemy he must defeat, and the one enemy he cannot possibly defeat. It is, of course, himself.

The idea that a person, before he can be heroic to other people, must first face his own demons and weaknesses is as old as stories themselves. It has been the case with every hero from Batman to Jesus Christ himself (who faced his agony in the garden). Without weakness, there isn’t really anything to overcome. It is not all difficult to fight an enemy that is entirely unknown or unattached to you. An hero without weakness can go against as many super villains as he likes, but a story about an all powerful man beats up bad guys isn’t a story, it’s just an oxymoron.

To the end that all heroes have to have weaknesses, authors throw in all the problems of humanity for their heroes to struggle against. Any and every bad thing imaginable stands between a character and his (or her) destiny as a hero. There are the usual suspects: abandonment, an unpleasant childhood, the death of a dearly beloved family member, some crime committed in the past that comes back to haunt him, all of which create doubts and issues that have to be gone over. More rarely, an author gets a little more creative. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulled off an interesting twist when he gave Sherlock Holmes a weakness that is more commonly reserved for villains: hubris. If Dr. Watson wasn’t around to soften Holmes’s antisocial egotism, there would be relatively little to like about the super-sleuth. Additionally, Holmes has the curious luck of having a weakness that is precisely the same as his strength. His mind is the reason that he is successful, but it also causes him to become bored and seek out dangerous (although at the time the story was written, not illegal) alternatives to mental stimulation (i.e. cocaine). He is also limited by his ability to remember things. In one conversation that Dr. Watson has with Holmes, he finds out that Sherlock Holmes did not know (or care) that the earth revolved around the sun. As Watson reels from the shock of the idea that a genius such as Holmes could have escaped knowing the most basic thing about the solar system, Holmes explains that “there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” This provides a logical reason for purposely forgetting about the solar system. It also reflects back on the idea of strengths and weaknesses.

There comes a point where weaknesses and strengths elbow each other out. When a person practices virtues, those virtues elbow out faults. Likewise, when a person practices vices, virtues are shoved aside. This is, of course, true not only of individuals, but of groups. When an entire culture decided to act one way, other options seem less likely. When one moral pillar of society falls, then it is very likely that others will follow. The ability of that society to uphold natural law quite naturally diminishes.

Under such circumstances, it is harder for morality to be seen because morality of the more mundane variety, that is, your regular old Good Samaritan virtue, becomes harder to recognize and even harder to find. We say there are heroes left but in reality, there is no one left who will recognize those heroes. Instead, the heroes are labeled as crackpots and freaks, because they refuse to adhere the standards of a fallen society.

The time has come when standing up for basic moral principals earns a person the scorn of our society—that much can be seen by looking at the replies of the average tweeter to Pope Benedict XVI. The few moral strongholds left are crumbling, being jostled out of the way by progressive ideas and an unbelievable level of flat-out ignorance. Society has not yet collapsed into a mad ring of hatred and despair but really it is only a matter of time before the negative aspects of society overwhelm the positive ones.

Fortunately, although the moral degradation of society occurs like Sherlock Holmes forgetting how many planets are in the solar system (although, lately, that is a valid question, what with Pluto jumping in and out of the count) the reintroduction of morality into a society works the same way. Just as Dr. Watson pesters Holmes by returning the matter of the Solar System to the front and center of his mind, there are indomitable forces that will always dredge up the moral codes that humans have honored since the beginning of time, and a few brave souls will respond to those truths. When people choose to be selfless, they choose to be heroic—no matter how insignificant the situation. With each case of individual heroism, a little bit of virtue gets to shove its way back into the world and elbow out a tiny bit of the evil that seems to be running rampant.

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