Life in the Body

No Time for Heroics

‘It’s easy being a BOX TOPS HERO!’ So reads the cheery and informative banner-text on the back of our latest box of Cheerios. ‘You don’t need superpowers to be a BOX TOPS HERO – just a few minutes and a pair of scissors.’ I wonder sometimes whether words that used to have a sort of significance in our language – words like ‘hero’ – haven’t lost their meaning altogether. If not meaning, then certainly gravitas.

Before you castigate me, let me say that I realize only too well that the marketing department of General Mills is not setting out to write a philosophical treatise when they design cereal packaging. I do not intend, therefore, to dignify their cardboard with an ominous voice-over and in-depth analysis.

Nevertheless, they are using language in a way that reaches millions of us in the US (not to speak of the rest of the world), with an access to (and influence in) homes and families that few other companies, writers, instructors, or salesmen can parallel. And the way that marketers use language is partly formative – that is, an attempt at getting something new and catchy into your head – but it is partly reflective also. Marketers know they need to reach you, specifically, and get your demographic’s attention. So, on the whole, they will attempt to speak in a language that resonates with you – that is, mirrors or reflects your present understanding.

What are their assumptions, then, about what it might mean (to you) to be a hero?

Box Top Heroism

  • You probably think that becoming a hero is difficult. It might require a certain kind of character; a degree of self-denial; perhaps some training or apprenticeship. Maybe it takes something inward that not everyone possesses. The first reassurance that comes to you at the breakfast table, therefore, is that, contrary to your assumptions, being (significantly, not becoming – no journey or process is involved) a certain kind of hero is easy!
  • You probably think that becoming a hero requires something out-of-the-ordinary. Or, if you have grown up on the same cartoons I did, that it requires ‘superpowers’ or scientifically-assisted (or serendipitous) mutation. Maybe you need some sort of skill that isn’t acquired overnight, or some virtue that takes time to become an enfleshed part of your character. But be assured, says GM – you can be our kind of hero without any of that nonsense!
  • You probably think that becoming a hero takes time. It’s not something that just ‘happens’; you can’t change into a hero like you can change a channel, can you? Surely, if it were that easy, everyone would be a hero, right? Aha, say the marketers, but everyone can be a hero! Because it only takes a few minutes.
  • You probably think that becoming a hero requires some special equipment, mental, spiritual, or physical. Even your comic book heroes had capes and spandex suits, without which the heroic acts seemed impossible to perform. Mightn’t it take some experience, some trials, some hardship, some endurance, along with study, practice, deliberation, and a host of other activities to produce the kind of equipment that is necessary to a hero? Not at all, according to the box: all you really need, at least for today, is a pair of scissors.

And once you’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that you can be some sort of hero, right now (‘click!’), all it takes is the gumption to cut a few rectangles out of that box and hand them over to the proper authorities. Your good deed for the day almost does itself!

Actual Heroism

But you know, you were probably right about all this hero stuff from the beginning. The marketers, however, have a way of simultaneously redefining the terms in which you understand your world and flattering you while they do it. It’s a remarkable and effective combination. Once you embrace their idea of heroism, at least for a ‘few minutes’, you can feel free to pat yourself on the back and put a skip in your step. Because you’re special.

It’s easy to believe them for a little while and allow them to redefine our lives because (a) we don’t have time to be real heroes, (b) we really don’t have heroes anymore, and (c) our language is so malleable, pragmatic, and regularly abused that we have lost our intuitive sense of the integrity of words.

We don’t have living (or recently expired) heroes as a culture anymore because, in order for them to remain in the public memory for longer than five minutes, they have to bear the constant media limelight that all our ‘celebrity’ performers are accustomed to acting in front of every moment of their lives. They can’t compete, they make one or two news cycles, and then are promptly and permanently cycled off (bad for ratings).

The good news is that the disappearance of the heroic from the public consciousness doesn’t mean heroism is impossible, nor does it disqualify you from becoming a hero.

But as I said, you were right about it at first.

Becoming a heroic sort of person doesn’t require spandex britches, but it will require hard work over a long period of time. It will require self denial and self sacrifice. It will require an acknowledgement of limits and a deliberate attentiveness to the details of embodied life. It will require focus, practice, endurance of hardship, growth through trial. It will require being a servant while being OK with thanklessness.

All of these traits and qualities can be encapsulated in one overarching idea: outward focus.

The hero doesn’t think about himself, nor consider his interests as primary. He works, he develops, he practices, he sacrifices, he gives, he acquires, for the benefit of others. He does the right thing at the right time not because his action is calculated to benefit himself and his close business circle (which is why we have no modern hero-politicians in this country) but because he knows it is the right thing, even at great personal cost. And he is likely to be little concerned about box tops.

Real heroism (as opposed to the box-top variety) is rare nowadays because we are incredibly self-focused. Instead of looking inward, with pity, start looking out with compassion. Instead of waiting to be served, start serving. Instead of waiting for your fifteen minutes of fame, start working on your seventeen years of sacrifice.

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.