In the last several years, heroes and heroines — especially the super versions of them — have flooded our collective consciousness like never before.
It is not that the idea is new. After all, they are comic characters from the last century. Yet the scale of its cultural influence is unprecedented, thanks largely to Marvel’s monumental effort in constructing an entire cinematic universe.
Today, their characters are to us what the Olympian gods were to the ancient Greeks; even if you are not a fan, you cannot avoid from hearing about them.
Principles in honouring heroes and heroines
There are a few principles that we can consider as we teach ourselves, our students, and our children about heroism:
It is not the superpower that makes them heroes.
Supervillains have that too. What makes them heroes is the willful decision to do good or — when good isn’t an option — the least evil. To be a hero, being just and kind are more important than being smart or strong.
Be careful to not masculinising heroines.
There is a tendency to portray female characters with weapons and have them physically fight. Teach our sisters and daughters that those are not necessarily what heroism is. They don’t need to imitate men. They don’t have to accept the masculine view of how to be strong. Recognise the more elemental strength in their own softness and femininity.
Disassociate violence from heroism.
Even our brothers and sons should be taught to separate violence from heroism. Films tend to show scenes that stimulate the amygdala and other parts of our brain that respond to violence. It helps them to get more audience. But in real life, violence tends to beget more violence. Heroes are often the ones who end that cycle.
Heroes and heroines serve others.
Emphasise heroism as the quality of serving others, rather than of fighting others. When your child wants to be a hero or heroine, don’t ask them ‘Who the bad guy is?’ Instead, ask ‘Who do you want to help?’
Fame does not always come in the package.
In real life, most heroes will never be popular and accepted, at least not immediately. In fact, when you want to improve a cultural or political condition, people who are used to that condition will hate you for it. The wanting to be loved by the masses is an obstruction on your heroic path.
Heroism comes with complexity.
A wonderful thing about the current cinematic trend is the depictions of superheroes with human imperfections. They are not morally idealistic all the time. This doesn’t mean you should glorify those flaws (‘It is okay to be arrogant because, you know, Tony Stark’). It means you can still do great things while improving your personal weaknesses. You don’t need to wait to be perfect.
Dunkirk and the humble forms of heroism
To be honest, I started reflecting on heroism not after watching any of the Marvel’s films. I was pulled into that space by Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Like other Nolan’s movies, Dunkirk unforgivingly demands you to think deeper. The visual perspective is immersively subjective; you are forced to be with the soldiers, even when things are quiet and nothing extraordinary happens.
The storytelling is nonlinear, progressing at different time-frames: one week on land, one day at the sea, one hour in the air. And the characters barely speak.
Marvel and DC present heroism in the form of extremely strong, technologically advanced, sexy and funny human beings (or humanoid aliens). Dunkirk did the opposite.
They were not soldiers who were gloriously winning battles. They were scared and in retreat. They ate bread with jam, then swam for their lives when the ship was torpedoed. They suffered PTSD. The fishermen, sailing their small boats across the Channel, carried no weapons. Even the pilot, who won the dogfights, was eventually captured.
The uncinematic heroes and heroines in our lives
More than anything, films like Dunkirk is crucial in teaching us about the more terrestrial and humble viewpoint of heroism, victory and defeat.
It affects our spiritual relationship to what winning in life means. It subconsciously guides what we value in other people and in ourselves.
That, in turn, affects our choices in life, from what career we consider worth pursuing, to whether we treat the janitors differently than the rich entrepreneurs.
As a spiritual practice, take a few minutes to think about the heroes and heroines that you have met. Focus on the ones that have no social media followings, not being on TV, and no PhDs or titles behind their names.
I am thinking about my father quietly cleaning my mother’s wound that is difficult to heal because of diabetes.
I am thinking about that police officer, who has been forcefully transferred away from Penang because he refused to accept a bribe.
I am thinking about the student who spends her time helping a friend with addiction.
And I am thinking about those with addictions, who are still not giving up struggling to liberate themselves.
I am thinking about a friend who goes out of his way to help a single parent who struggles with debt.
I am thinking about the working parents who choose to prioritise their children despite the demands and rewards of their careers.
I am thinking about mothers, like mine, who spend their lives serving their families and taking care of their homes.
They all embody the profound meanings of futuwwa and jihad, the Sufi concepts of chivalry and the heroic struggle against one’s ego.
To me, those thousand faces of uncinematic heroes and heroines, perhaps more than the Olympian gods or the Avengers, deserve our respect and admiration.