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August 1, 2011
Paul Asay
How to Be a Hero—a Crash Course

How to Be a Hero—a Crash Course

Here's the unvarnished reality: The problem with life is that it's so … boring.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking right now. What!? Plugged In, a publication of Focus on the Family, is complaining about life being boring? Don't they know that life is wonderful?! Life is a gift, and each second is a blessing from God to be savored?! Life is—

Sure. I get it. All that's true … technically. But let me ask you this: What are you doing right now? Sitting at a computer screen? Just like me? I mean, I'm flattered that you think this article is part of your gift of life and all, but let's face it, as much as I hope you're savoring the fine details of word construction, grammar and the purfect speling that comes from years of honing my craft, I guarantee that at this precise moment you're not feeling the same adrenaline rush you'd have if you were saving your township from a fearsome alien, or protecting your country from evil Nazis, or saving the world from robots in disguise.

How do I know this? Well, from going to the theater, of course. You know, those darkened rooms with rows and rows of comfortable chairs and big screens that show us life … with all the boring parts removed. So with all due respect to the policemen, firemen, third-world missionaries and other assorted everyday do-gooders reading right now, I've learned that life is about doing something big. Huge! Hey, if Harry hadn't taken down Voldemort, Hogwarts would have quite literally gone to the snakes. If Superman hadn't reversed time by flying really fast, the Hoover dam—and most of Arizona and Nevada—would be one big national wetland right now. If Indiana hadn't fended off Hitler's hordes, we'd all be, well, probably dead.

So it's time for us to lay claim to our birthright. To make a difference, people. We can rise above! WE TOO CAN GO OUT INTO THE WORLD AND—

And do what, exactly?

The real truth of the matter is that very few of us have any nifty martial arts moves to unleash, or even an oversized hammer that we could swing around and alter weather patterns with. We've just got … ourselves. We're smart enough to drive a car back and forth from work, but not nearly clever enough to land a jet in a jam. You're not a hero. I'm certainly not. We're just … regular folk waiting for a hero. Right?

Au contraire. Welcome to Heroism 101, a breakthrough curriculum wherein today's cinematic heroes take us through a step-by-step process on how we all can become just like them. No magic wands required. No robot/sports car rides. No team of scientists dosing us with experimental chemicals. All we'll need is to—well, we're about to find out what we need.

Step 1: Forget about your past. In Cowboys & Aliens, Jake Lonergan has spent much of his life being a big ol' jerk. He's no hero, really—just a good-for-nothing slimeball who has a way with guns. So when aliens come to town and start killing folks, Jake wants to help out but doesn't quite know how to put down his black hat. Thankfully, he gets some valuable insight from a dying preacher who tells him, "God doesn't care who you were, son, only who you are." And those words drive Jake to become the best alien-fighting cowboy he can be.

Sometimes we're held back by our own backstories. We can't accept the fact that we could be heroes because we've been so unheroic in the past. Folks familiar with addiction say it's this guilt that makes addiction so hard to grapple with. "What's the use?" addicts might say after another stumble. "Why bother?" a man might lament after getting into another needless fight with his wife. But there's nothing stopping us from being better people—more heroic people—from this day forward, is there? The only thing we can control is the future—and we can only control that one day at a time.

Step 2: Move beyond life's tragedies. Joel Lamb loses his mother before Super 8 really starts cranking. His dad—the town's assistant sheriff—loses his wife. The two struggle with how to get beyond their heartache with little success until a massive creature from outer space takes up residence nearby, sending both of their lives spiraling into chaos. Eventually, son and father wind up becoming heroes, letting the pain of the past go in order to pursue a better, brighter future. As Joel says to the highly attentive monster, "Bad things can happen, but you can still live."

Bad things do happen, and sometimes we can get snared in our understandable sorrow. But while grief is an undeniable and even necessary part of life, we get to a point where we need to let go and move on. And sometimes we can find a catalyst to help us do just that—whether it's the needs of a neighbor down the street, a cause like a soup kitchen or an alien that just wants to go home.

Step 3: Everybody gets scared, but don't let that stop you. After realizing that being a Green Lantern—essentially an interstellar cop—entails, like, risk and stuff, Hal Jordan might want to give back his ring. Hey, his life's on the line here! Alien bad guys could kill him! Or worse! But rather than running away, Hal presses through his fear and embraces his role as one of the universe's prime defenders. Naturally, he saves the day—along with quite a few days after that, too.

While we might not have much first-hand experience battling the Parallax, we all know something about fear. We might be scared to stand up for someone at work or cringe at the thought of actually confronting those rowdy teens at the park playground who are scaring away all the little kids. Fear has a way of paralyzing us. The secret, Hal tells us, is that we need not let the feeling crush us. Life is sometimes about taking risks … and the risks we take become far more meaningful if we take them for others.

Step 4: Use your skills. Mater isn't exactly the stuff spies are made of. "I'm just a tow truck," he says in Cars 2. But even though he's absolutely right about being "just" a tow truck (and a rusty, sometimes annoying one at that), it's his unique character and skills that prove far more useful in their natural state than had he tried to dress in a tux and work a roulette wheel.

All of us can say we're "just" such-and-such. We're just accountants or janitors or homemakers or students or movie reviewers. That doesn't mean we can't use our skills to help others—and if you haven't figured this out yet, helping others is what being a hero is all about. We all have talents. We all have the ability to give of our time, and sometimes of our money. It might not be flashy, but the effort we put into something using the skills at our disposal really can make a world of difference. After all, since when was being "just" anything not good enough for God to make some use of us?

Step 5: Sacrifice isn't just good, it's necessary. Harry Potter carries a pretty heavy burden in The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 when he goes mano-a-mano with Voldemort, a supremely evil wizard who tends to kill everyone who crosses him. Harry knows this could end badly, and most of his brave-hearted friends know their war against Voldemort's Death Eaters may have a distinctly painful ending. But fight on they do. Why? Because they have to. It's their only hope of restoring some balance to the wizarding world and protect what good can be found there. They don't sacrifice themselves because it seems like the thing to do. They sacrifice because they must.

That's a lesson few of us, in today's pampered environs, really get. Sacrificing for others doesn't just make life better for some. Sometimes it's what makes life possible. Consider a monetary sacrifice we might make to a charity entrusted with feeding and clothing the needy, or the sacrifice of time you might make to teach a child to read, or the sacrifice of energy it takes to help someone get off drugs or find a little faith. Our primo example in this category? Jesus, of course. He sacrificed His life so that we could live. And we're called to follow His example—sacrificing ourselves to help others we meet along our way. Few of us will be called to sacrifice our lives … but all of us are asked to give parts of them. And if it really is a sacrifice, we should feel it. Our movie heroes sure do.

Step 6: Heroism comes from the heart. Steve Rogers was the second guinea pig to be injected with a super-secret chemical (that would eventually transform him into Captain America). The other guy, well, he didn't turn out so well. So this time 'round, the chemical's creator decides to look for a special guy—someone who has the heart of a hero, if not the body. Rogers, who's made a habit of standing up to bullies and risking his life for others, fits the profile to a T. And before he undergoes the procedure, the scientist makes him promise something: "That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man."

Sometimes we dismiss the fact that we could be heroes because we don't look the part. We've got it in our heads that heroes should be dashing daredevils who are tall and muscular or sleek and angular. Which means, of course, that Mother Teresa could never be a hero. Neither could the guy who dropped that gold coin in the Salvation Army kettle last Christmas. Or the little 9-year-old who asked her friends to, in lieu of birthday presents, donate the money to help others.

But all of those people are heroes. So doesn't it stand to reason that we can be too? We don't have to be big or beautiful. We just need to care.

Real heroes don't actually fight aliens. You knew that, right? They just pretend to do that onscreen as a substitute, as a picture, as a metaphor for what we can all do—tackling pain and poverty and injustice around us. They don't share a lot in common, these heroes of ours, ranging as they do from grand and glowing superheroes to 12-year-old boys to rusty tow trucks. But they do share two things:

First, all of them sublimated their own desires for those of another—sometimes lots of anothers. Frankly, all the rules I've given here about becoming a hero, most of 'em can be summed up in just this one: We need to give more, receive less. And that means giving of ourselves. That's what being a hero is all about.

Second, none of them did much heroing while sitting in some theater or family room.

There might be nothing wrong with kicking back now and then and watching a (wholesome, Plugged In-friendly) movie. And if all of you stopped watching movies and television altogether, well, I'd be out of a job. But the only way we can truly be heroes is to do, not to watch others do.

And if you do do, you might find that life gets a whole lot more exciting while you're at it.