What Makes A Hero

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I saw a patient of mine recently whose appearance in my office always makes me smile.  He’s challenging—not because he’s a difficult person (quite the opposite), but because he has so many serious medical problems about which I can do little.  Why, then, does seeing him so consistently lighten my mood?  Because it reminds me that for all the terrible things that go on—the abuse, the discrimination, the injustice, the downright nastiness—good still exists in the world.  Because, you see, he’s a hero.

What makes him a hero isn’t the consistent good cheer with which he faces the discomfort his illnesses cause him on a daily basis.  What makes him a hero is that fifteen years ago, before he got sick, he donated one of his kidneys to his brother who had AIDS.  He told me about it the first day we met when he came to see me, reporting it the same way he did that he lived alone and worked at a large retail chain—in a tone that attached to it no particular significance.  Whatever ego boost he may or may not have ever felt from doing it had long since faded.  I paused in my history-taking, looked up at him from the notes I was making with eyebrows raised as I, at least, thought this remarkable.  But in response, he only smiled self-consciously and nodded once to confirm it.

Around the same time, a professional football player (whose name I can’t recall now) was being promoted by the media as a hero, and I remember thinking how strange it was that the entire nation was celebrating him when only a handful of people knew about my patient.


Not to take away from that football player’s accomplishments in any way—I’m a great admirer of excellence in any form—but I found nothing about him even remotely heroic.  I wondered if he wouldn’t find the label a bit embarrassing himself if he were ever introduced to my patient.

What actually makes a hero?  I’d argue it’s the willingness to make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of others.  If you don’t find yourself having to resist a voice inside your head urging you to save yourself instead of whatever action you’re contemplating, my heart, at least, will refuse to recognize your actions—however legitimately compassionate or courageous they may be—as heroic.  Serving others while simultaneously serving oneself can be noble, certainly, but a special kind of nobility attaches itself to those who serve others at a cost to themselves.  That’s the nobility that tugs at my heart.  That’s the the kind of behavior I find heroic.


This definition implies the number of genuine heroes we have is at once smaller and larger than we all think.  Smaller, because many of those people held up by the media as heroes, while undoubtedly wonderful in many ways, don’t qualify as heroes.  Certainly not famous sports figures—even those who quietly provide free game tickets to underprivileged children as Michael Jordan did or volunteer their time and money to charity as numerous pro football players do.

In fact, what sparked my thinking about this topic was a Facebook posting by a friend of mine who wrote, “…on a plane talking to an interesting passenger before takeoff about his job…will be an interesting flight sitting next to American hero Captain Sullenberger…”  I found myself reflecting that while Sully does indeed for me represent the epitome of excellence, commitment, humility, and grace under pressure, the actions he took in the particular circumstance that made him famous weren’t, in my view, heroic.  Strictly speaking, he risked losing nothing personal in what he did on that day he and his crew (let’s not forget his crew) saved the lives of all the passengers of Flight 1549.  He may have been thinking more about his passengers’ safety than his own—a characteristic of heroes to be sure—and, in fact, I strongly suspect that had circumstances been different and he’d needed to put himself in personal jeopardy to save those passengers, he would have done so without hesitation.  But those circumstances didn’t exist the day he glided that plane safely into the Hudson.  He had to make many choices but none that put him in more jeopardy than anyone else.  While it seems to me likely that he does, in fact, possess the character of a hero, on that particular day no opportunity presented itself for him to display it.  Leadership, courage, decisiveness, and technical expertise—yes.  But heroism—no.

And I think he’d agree.  Few people consider themselves heroes when doing something they have no choice about doing.  This includes, I’ve discovered, most patients who find themselves facing potentially terminal diseases like cancer.  Most such patients, in fact, bristle at the notion that “fighting” their disease makes them heroic.  They certainly don’t feel like heroes, they tell me.  How they feel is tired, discouraged, and sick.  They do what they need to do to survive.  What’s heroic, they want to know, about that?  There’s no other person whom they hope to save by fighting, no personal sacrifice they’re making that another may live.  They “fight” to save themselves—a worthy and noble goal certainly, one that requires enormous courage in the face of the painful treatments they must often endure—but not a goal, most of them seem to feel, that in any way deserves to be called heroic.  Most of them even refuse to see the keeping of a stiff upper lip in the face of their fear as heroic, even when it’s done—as it so often is—in an attempt to ease the burden their loved ones feel in watching them go though their illness.

So how, then, using this definition, are there more heroes around than we think?  To find the answer, look at your neighbors and friends.  You’ll often find, if you bother to ask, that they’re making sacrifices for others—sometimes enormous ones—all around you.  Single mothers who deny themselves vacations, clothes, and even food to send their children to college.  Couples who come to their doctors with forms to be filled out to qualify them to become foster parents.  Children who put their careers on hold or even abandon them altogether to care for their sick parents, or to keep them out of nursing homes.

And my patient, who donated a kidney to save his brother.  A brother who unfortunately died anyway (this was back when most AIDS patients died no matter what we did—a fact my patient knew himself when he gave him his kidney).

“That’s how it goes sometimes,” was all he said to me when I asked him about his brother’s death during that first visit we had all those years ago.

He had come to see me, by the way, because his one remaining kidney had started to fail.  I subsequently diagnosed him with sarcoidosis and was able to save it, only to flounder at sparing him from further complications of the disease later, complications that have since forced him to go on disability and significantly compromised the quality of his life.

I’m sure he feels bitter about it on some days and rails against his fate on others.  He never complains to me about it, though.

He’s one of my heroes.  Who are some of yours?

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  • “What actually makes a hero? I’d argue it’s the willingness to make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of others.”

    Thanks for writing that. My husband participated in seven phase 1 clinical trials before dying from cancer. The odds of any one of those trials being successful were small and we knew that. Still, he persisted in enrolling because he hoped that his experience might help someone down the line.

    I admired him greatly for his strength in putting himself through all that. It never occurred to me to think of him a hero—he was already so many other things to me. My bad. I am adding hero to my list today. Thank you.

    dej: Sounds like a hero to me.


  • I appreciate this essay because it gets at a notion that has troubled me for some time. In the wake of 9/11, much has been made of the heroic nature of actions taken by fire fighters and police who were doing their jobs. Yes, they entered the buildings knowing that they might not survive, but it seems to me that they were doing what they signed up to do. The scope of the event and the political hay made by our leaders at the time enlarged their actions, much as Sullivan’s actions (oh, and the crew were probably valiant, too, but were doing their jobs as well) led to media attention and the ensuing hero status.

    Similarly, the workers who just couldn’t stay away from the recovery efforts—also labeled heroes in the media—who now expect remuneration and care for conditions caused or exacerbated by their work, were not motivated by the possibility of personal harm, but by their ability to do what needed to be done.

    We Americans view ourselves as heroic—we are, after all, number one—even as we wreak havoc on the environment and perpetuate the mistreatment of other people and nations.

    cherishwit: Actually, I think the 9/11 responders were heroes. They were just doing their jobs, but their jobs required them to risk their lives—a choice they made freely. Just because first responders are also paid doesn’t in my mind in any way diminish the heroism of their choice to be first responders.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Beth Patterson, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: What makes a hero? https://bit.ly/csTwBH […]

  • Hi Alex,

    I’ve been reading your posts for some time now, and have enjoyed them a great deal. Thank you for sharing your insights, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to think about what they might offer me.

    My sister donated a kidney to a good friend of her new boyfriend (now husband 🙂 almost 2 years ago. She just couldn’t stand knowing that he could be dead in three months while she could give him one of her kidneys without suffering a loss of function herself. The risk for her was the surgery and possible infection from a hospital stay, while he would certainly die without it. I was so proud of her for volunteering for this. At the time, I sometimes thought that she was on quite an ego trip about it—that by donating a kidney she was “proving” that the selfless persona she presented to the world was the real her. Along the way, though, I realized that whether or not that was true (and there may have been a small grain of truth there, who knows), it really didn’t matter. What was important was that she acted on her desire to save someone when she didn’t have to. And you know what? These days she is almost embarrassed to talk about it with new people because to her it isn’t the important part of the story—the recipient of her kidney is alive and well and thriving and that’s the important part.

    She is my hero.

  • My heroes are palliative care nurses. When my father was dying it was they who walked the last mile with him, and us.

    They gave him every attention, despite vomiting and worse they never so much as blinked, cleaned him up, said he could only apologize when he heard them complain.

    They found foods to tempt him to eat, heated or cooled to his taste, made eggnog at any hour of the day, sat with him, encouraged him, and us.

    Then most of them went home to their families, and put in even more hours caring for them. Wonderful people.

  • While I agree in part with your definition, I still believe people who save other people’s lives, even while not jeopardizing their own, qualify for the title. In particular in the eyes of those whom they saved! So the pilot and crew in your story and many physicians, bodyguards, firemen, etc qualify as heroes to me, even if they’re only “doing their jobs.”

  • I just want dej to know that her husband is a hero to me.

  • 9/11/2001: The people on United Airlines Flight 93 were heroes. They mounted an assault on the hijackers in an attempt to take back control of the plane and avoid a crash into the US Capitol. They must have known how little a chance of success they had. They are some of my heroes even though I never met them.

  • I came to your blog today because I needed some inspiration, Alex. Thanks for this post.

    I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a hero and how you can’t live in a world of heroes without being surrounded by a few monsters.

    I’ve been thinking about this because I’m writing a piece on the slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, and how 30+ years and 3 trials after his murder, his murderer, a KKK member, was finally found guilty. I’m amazed at all that had to change—and did—for this to finally happen.

    I think a hero is someone who has a choice, someone who doesn’t have to sacrifice or do the hard thing but still decides that they must do exactly that—regardless of the cost.

    Just like your patient. And Medgar Evers. And so many others who we will never hear of but whose actions cause an important ripple in our world.

    Thanks, Alex.

  • An interesting counter to the “just doing their jobs” idea is that these people certainly don’t have to do their jobs. Check out the crew of the Oceanos cruise liner. The ship started sinking and they all jumped into the lifeboats to save themselves—without even telling the passengers the ship was sinking!

    So, there are plenty of firefighters or police officers who have the option of choosing not to do their job every day. And many don’t. So those that do should be commended, even if it’s what they signed up for.

    Matt: I think you make an excellent point. It addresses the issue, too, that first responders might behave heroically in certain circumstances and not in others. For me, what makes a hero is the choice to risk oneself to help others.


  • […] here that turning the other cheek is, in fact, entirely immoral.I argued in a previous post, What Makes A Hero, that committing an act of self-sacrifice or of simply risking self-sacrifice for the good of […]

  • This is an interesting topic and I am inclined to agree with you. A hero takes action to save another, in some fashion, when a personal risk is involved and despite the danger. That’s not to say that other actions without personal risk, are not heroic. Captain Sully may not define a “true” hero but his actions were heroic. His decision to attempt a landing on the water was nothing less than brave and gutsy. His bravery saved his life and many others.

    Police officers are heroes. A police officer willingly accepts the responsibility of protecting citizens from all harm and despite the enormous personal risk they face. When a police officer faces death or serious bodily injury in the line of duty, I don’t believe he takes action based upon an obligation to his/her employer because it is his/her job but rather, he summons the courage to risk it all, to save a life.

  • […] a previous post, What Makes A Hero, I discussed what I consider to be the criteria that one must fulfill to be considered a hero. In […]

  • Was directed to this from your “Tribute to a Hero” post.

    My parents will always be my heroes—my dad for working hard and rarely spending savings on himself, to provide money for our further education. My mother—for staying at home and ensuring that our needs were always taken care of, so we could focus on our studies.

    My parents also chant endlessly for us (NMHRK) and are strong members of our community. During our exams when we were studying abroad for our degrees, my parents would wake up at odd hours (even when they were sick) to chant simultaneously while we were sitting for our long 3-and-a-half-hour papers. Their endless dedication will always be an inspiration to us.