MLK“Do you think heroes are born, or made?”

I was asked this question in 2005 while riding a bus through China. The bus trip was one leg of a journey to the oasis town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, and we had been passing through a desolate rocky landscape punctuated by both abandoned structures and new construction. The striking juxtaposition of society ancient and new left me feeling like a tightrope walker between eras.

Feeling the precariousness of modernity, a professor and I had fallen into a discussion of social change across societies. We were in the process of considering such well-known historical figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony, but the discussion had shifted into the question of how these heroes of our society became heroes in the first place. At that question, though, I had to pause. I could not help feeling that there was something wrong with our framing—that it ought not to be about how some individuals became heroes of social change so much as about the context for the change itself. Mythological heroes are people with power and vision beyond the average person, people who do for a society what society cannot do for itself.

I thought then, as I do now, that the reality of a hero is something quite different.

Modern heroes, I think, are not made nor born so much as they are drafted into service. Their heroism has less to do with superior power or vision, and very much more to do with a society in need of a leader. Moments arise when change is possible, and those who recognize it and lead become the heroes of our world.

Heroes of social change are visionaries and social servants, but they are never acting alone. Instead, they are the visible few we remember, while there were many ready and willing to act when they were needed. Someone like Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a hero in part because of keen awareness, but also because remember groups by their leaders. Every individual man and woman who sat down at a lunch counter or sat where they weren’t allowed on a bus contributes to the apotheosis.

I don’t think this is a bad thing if we recognize it. Heroes help us understand change so dramatic that it seems otherwise unthinkable. It is only not that Martin Luther King Jr. was extraordinary—it is that he symbolizes a moment when we, as a society, made extraordinary choices. Heroes, therefore, are the myth we use to explain social change: the visible part of something that occurs in the deeper processes of the systems within and around our society.

I think also that this view of heroism offers some hope when change seems distant or untenable. If our heroes are the embodiment of groups, we need not be heroes; we need only contribute what we are able. If our heroes are no different than we, but happen to be called upon in time of need, there is no greatness to live up to—instead, there is vigilance.

If our heroes are a collective endeavor, then I have my answer to the original question: heroes are forged when we choose them, and we choose them because they are ready, and we are choosing because we, too, are ready.

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