Episode 80: Sudden Hero Syndrome

Last time I wrote about how your standard hero is basically destined to drown in misery by the choice made at the onset of his/her decision to eventually save the world. After all the pessimism that I described I feel like some context and jutification are in order. The call to be a hero is something Campbell and many other theorits have explained in far more detail than me and with way fancier vocabulary so I recommend looking through far more qualified works if this something that interests you.

In the words of the great Teddy Roosevelt (which I only remember through Robin Williams playing him in Night at the Museum), “Some people are born great, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Pretty much every hero you will see in tv, comics, and other works of literature will go through a moment when there is an internal debate as to answer the call or not. Peter Parker has perhaps the most recognizable moment of not becoming a hero when the situation arises and paying a price for it. Sure he could have continued not caring after Uncle Ben’s decision but the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” was a big deal. Others decide to become a hero long before they take on that particular identity, especially when you are a masked hero. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent chose to do something more long before they put on their capes and went to the streets.

Any hero worth his mettle will sprint into action upon a moment’s notice to answer a cry for help. Most of them even go on patrol to make sure they are available to respond to any danger that may appear. Now what I want to talk about is that rare moment when a random person off the street decides to be a hero at the drop of a hat (by the way, this is a stupid metaphor. hat dropping is not a universal measure of time, and few people wear them anymore; rant over). Just imagine that you and a bunch of other people are walking down a street, you hear what you can only imagine to be a gunshot and someone screaming for help. Your first instinct and that of 99.9% of those around you is to run far away in the oppossite direction of where the inital danger lies. At least a few of you will call 911 along the way of this strategic retreat but in all honesty this is what you are suppossed to do. However, that 0.1% of people brave/stupid enough to go towards danger have something I like to call sudden hero syndrome.

Perhaps the Ur example of this particular trope can be found in the SNES game Chrono Trigger. Quick recap (if you get the chance please play this game, it is among the best games for that system if not one of the top RPGs ever): kid named Chrono goes to the fair, meets a cute girl, things go crazy and girl ends up going into some sort of black hole. Our hero (who is just an average swordsman at best) goes in to save the girl he has known for a few hours and then time travelling shenanigans occur. In that split second decision they choose to be a hero, often completely disregarding fear or logic. In the chivalric/chauvinistic heavily hegemonic towards males being heroes, sudden hero syndrome is often triggered for a damsel in distress. Our good friends over at tvtropes.org call this the Dulcinea Effect.

There are certainly other reasons to be a hero without a second thought. Yusuke Urameshi of Yu Yu Hakusho fame was pretty much a bully that ends up sacrifing his life to save a little kid from uncoming traffic. Booster Gold did it on a whim to become rich and famous. Sometimes revenge, not the noblest of reasons but certainly a common one, is the catalyst towards taking action. Other times, it’s because of adventure and excitement like how Goku at the beginning of Dragon Ball was more interested in the prospect of interesting battles than in saving the local townspeople. If you are (or consider yourself to be) the chosen one then it’s not so much a choice as it is an instinct that suddenly takes over. Then again, you could just be a nice person who helps others during a time of great need because it’s the right thing to do.

Perhaps I am being unfair by focusing so much on the immediate danger and high stakes world of immediate heroic action and not some of the more mundane tasks that need to be done. During the most florid of speeches we are quick to appreciate the police, the fire fighters, the teachers, doctors, nurses, and all these other noble endeavors that shape and help society more than fictional heroes ever could. Soldiers, even the ones come back relatively unscathed from battle, have the mantle of hero thrust accordingly upon them and deservedly so. However, these are all people that chose long before stepping into their area of expertise to do so and underwent years of training to take on these challenges. Sudden heroes barely have any prior training. In fact, it is that rigorous training and certification in these fields that I would rather wait a few minutes for a professional with the right credentials to do the job than for someone to come out of nowhere with good intentions but ultimately improper skill.

As a kid, I always thought of myself as a hero that was just waiting for the one moment to prove himself. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that jumping into the throngs of danger was actually a suicidal move that would probably lead to one more victim needing help. There are certain laws of jurisdiction that are meant to disuade people from just going out and becoming vigilantes. It’s why a lot of manpower during emergencies is dedicated to getting eager spectators a safe distance away from their natural curiosity and so that people who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express the previous night don’t do anything beyond the parameters of their actual training. And yet, when the danger affects you personally, proper logic and protocol are quickly discarded. You hear a lot of cases of people that dive into a raging river to save a loved one, often without being a strong swimmer in the first place. Sometimes they save the victim and everyone is okay but many other times the sudden act of heroism comes with great sacrifice and maybe even failure on all ends. Other times, a person with a good heart but improper skills can make things worse by being too eager to help. There’s a reason why all forms of emergency first aid start with asking the person “are you ok?”. Going for the heimleich on someone that is just coughing cand get you charged with assault and sexual harassment pretty quickly. Also, if you have basic skills but there is a professional there as well, that person has priority and is in charge (Boy Scouts can’t tell doctors that they “got this”).

As someone who is still itching for the right moment to show his heroic tendencies, it is a weird realization that you can probably do more harm than good. One of the best examples of this is the legendary Don Quixote de la Mancha. A man in his fifties loses his mind and thinks himself a valiant knight that must go around the countryside helping people. Noble intentions did not make up for his gross ineptitude that got him repeatedly injured and he rarely actually helped people. There is a reason why “quixotic dreamer” was an insult in a lot of Victorian novels even with over two hundred years after its initial publication in another country. The romantic idealist in me still treats Don Quixote as a hero and an example but the practical realist knows that big brash attempts to save the day can end up doing more harm than good. I think I was around 13 when I was travelling with my family at some place in the states. At some moment, we were walking back to our hotel in the evening and I saw that this biker dude was with this girl and she saying “let go” (not in a “he’s kidnapping me” way but more like “I want to do something else stop bothering me” though I did not know the difference between the two at the time). I remember having the urge to say something courageous and save that girl like “unhand her you vile villain” but was too scared to actually do it. About ten seconds later I looked back at them and noticed that they were now making out. Even in my inaction I was embarassed that, what my roommate has dubbed as a “Captain Saves-a-hoe” attitude, that would have gotten me laughed at and/or beat up over nothing. I consider that to be the first moment where my sense of heroism clashed with the harsh realities of everyday life and I’m not really sure what came out of that ideological crash. I remember being confused and like a failure, again over completely nothing, as I realized that the world I live on doesn’t need that kind of hero. But somehow, I still think that this is the world’s problem not mine and should the call ever appear, I keep telling myself that I can be that hero. Maybe that’s just me clinging to an outdated chivalric model that never really existed in reality or a hope that I can break through the mundane monotony of my future in academia into something a bit more glorious with a direct and preceivable outcome. Maybe I’m just a guy who wants to live out the fantasy constructed over my childhood that if someone ever needed saving you could do be that 0.1%. It is only after studying all these kinds of stories that I realized that the cost of being a hero comes with the price of a victim and to wish that somehow greatness be thrust upon me is to ask that others be put at risk. If that is the case, I’d rather be a mild mannered day dreaming whatever if it meant that those around me would already be safe. But just in case, I think I’ll keep a cape handy.

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