Hero or role model? What is the difference?

I listened to an interview yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered with Brad Meltzer, a best-selling author who has written a book called “Heroes for my Son.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126741924

Some of his heroes include Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and Roberto Clemente.  According to him, they are heroes because they have all done something to help someone else.

As I listened to him describe his book and the heroes he has chosen, I started thinking about who I would include in my book of heroes.  First to mind: Superman.  Okay, so he is a “super-hero.” Time to examine my definition of “hero.”

What is a hero?  Is a hero someone who rescues people from burning buildings? Is it a doctor who performs life-saving surgery? Is the pilot who performed an emergency landing in the Hudson River a hero?  Yes, yes and yes.  It appears that my common thread is “life-saving.” Apparently my heroes need to save lives.  If that is the case, then I don’t have any personal heroes since my life has not (yet) needed saving.  So time to re-think my definition.  I turned to three online dictionaries for assistance.

Dictionary.com: a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.

Merriam Webster: 1 a : a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b : an illustrious warrior c : a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d : one that shows great courage

Cambridge Dictionary of American English: herofemale heroine
a person admired for bravery, great achievements, or good qualities, or the main character of a story, play, or movie

Note: the Cambridge Dictionary is the only reference source to combine both male and female terms in its definition. But really, who goes around saying “heroine” anymore? The other two dictionaries need to update their language!

These definitions surprised me. Apparently you don’t have to save a life to be a hero. You can just have “good qualities.” Or be an “illustrious warrior!”   So, with these revised definitions, who are my heroes?

Do I know any illustrious warriors? That sounds like a good place to start. Personally? No. But I can easily say that all the men and women enlisted in the US military are illustrious warriors.

  • Hero #1: military enlisted.

Do I know anyone with “good qualities?” Of course! Unless I want my hero list to include every single person I know, I need to come up with a more specific definition.  Better yet, I need to break that into two definitions: personal “good quality” heroes and famous “good quality” heroes.

Personal “good quality” hero: a person who has positively impacted my life through either direct action or by setting an example.

Famous “good quality” hero: a person who has made a positive impact on the larger community through specific acts.

I like those definitions. But it’s starting to get blurry. How does “good quality” hero differ from role model? Rosa Parks didn’t directly save lives, but her actions were courageous, history-making and admirable.  Isn’t that a role model?  I’m turning in a circle here–I still want my heroes to save lives.

Definition attempt #2: Personal “good quality” hero: someone who has directly impacted my physical life in a positive way.

  • Hero #2: Hans Ericsson (yes, my husband–cheesy, right?).  For the countless times that he stood watch while I was queasy; all the times he went on deck in rough weather to reef the sails; when he fixed the engine 100 miles from nowhere–my life wasn’t saved, but it was as close as I have ever gotten to physical danger and Hans jumped in and saved the day with muscle, brains and swagger. Sometimes I’ve just got to love his swagger.

How about a third definition: heroic role models.  I’ll save that for another day.


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