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What Makes A Hero?

Do you have a hero that you admire? If so, what do you admire about that hero?


Growing up, I watched a lot of superhero movies. As a kid, I thought these heroes were really awesome because of their superpowers, and I would often daydream about who would win if different heroes were to face off against each other.


As I got older, I started to appreciate the story and character development of these heroes. I noticed that all these heroes had to face self-doubt, suffering, and defeat. Whereas most people would give up, they faced the darkness within and outside their heart and overcame that darkness.


In other words, a hero is not someone who was born with great optimism and strength and remained that way their whole life. They have inner struggles just like anyone else, but they face those inner villains and overcome them, and that's why they can then defeat the outer villains. One can even say that it's precisely because of these difficulties that they could become heroes.


As Mencius said,

"Thus, before the world confers great responsibility to a person, it first toils one's mind, exhausts one's sinews and bones, starves one's body, subjects one to poverty, and obstructs one's efforts. Through all this, one's mind is stimulated, nature strengthened, and incompetencies mended."

 (Original text: "故天將降大任於是人也, 必先苦其心志, 勞其筋骨, 餓其體膚, 空乏其身, 行拂亂其所為, 所以動心忍性, 曾益其所不能.")


I once heard someone say that a macho general can be extremely ferocious on the battlefield, but if you force him to overcome one of his bad habits, like quitting smoking or not getting angry, he can't do it. He curls into a ball on the floor shivering in tears. OK maybe that second part is just my imagination, but you get the point. A true hero is able to master oneself and unlock one's full potential, while ordinary people succumb to their bad habits.


But what gives heroes the strength and motivation to overcome oneself and to face those seemingly impossible-to-defeat villains? I think it's because of their great love. Most of these heroes put the safety and wellbeing of their loved ones, or even everyone in the world, in their heart, so they are able to rise to the challenge. And I think it's this spirit that's what makes a hero a hero.


With this realization, I started having much more respect towards people around me. For example, my parents went through a lot of difficulty to raise me, but they always did their best to give me the best that they could. They have that heroic spirit. I also know people who weren't born with the greatest ability or situations, but they always gave their best, and even though they might not have succeeded at their endeavors, their heroic spirit has earned my admiration.


One such person is Confucius. I was recently reading Confucian Reflections by Philip Ivanhoe, and in this book, he said that Confucius is someone "who knows it won't work out but keeps at it." This line really struck me because I'm a pragmatist; if I know something won't work, I wouldn't bother wasting my time. Even before I read this line, I already admired Confucius for his great wisdom, so naturally, I wanted to understand why such a wise sage would keep trying at something that he knows wouldn't work.


For context, Confucius lived in a turbulent world where many small states had corrupted governments. He travelled around to different states to spread his philosophy of benevolence and moral excellence, hoping to find a ruler who would resonate with his ideals and collaborate to restore the golden days from the Zhou dynasty. Unfortunately, rejection came after rejection. He even got attacked and held hostage! But despite all these setbacks, Confucius didn't falter in his faith or efforts. He continued his travels…for 14 years! Eventually, he decided to return to his hometown and start teaching. Now, over 2500 years later, his teachings have spread all across the world.

Since I want to learn from Confucius's heroic spirit, I try to put myself into Confucius's shoes. Why was he able to get up failure after failure? He was even willing to sacrifice his life for his ideals. What gave him such a strong purpose? I think it's just like heroes in the movies: he put the wellbeing of the whole world in his heart.


In The Analects of Confucius, there is a passage where Confucius asks some students about their aspirations. Afterwards, a student asks Confucius for his aspirations. Confucius replied,

"For the elderly to be given peace and comfort, for friends to treat each other with trust and good faith, and for the young to be treated with love and care."

(Original text: "老者安之, 朋友信之, 少者懷之.")


The thing is, Confucius technically did not succeed in persuading any of the kings he encountered to collaborate with him. When he died, there were probably many people who viewed Confucius as a failure. Who would have known that he would leave such a big mark in history?


Perhaps that's one reason why we need to have and to chase those seemingly impossible ideals. If Confucius didn't do so, how would he have gained the wealth of experience and wisdom to teach his students? It's precisely because he always gave his best towards his dreams that he unlocked such profound wisdom, deemed worthy of being passed on generation after generation for thousands of years.


Moreover, one of my Chinese philosophy teachers explained that Confucius's ideals actually were realized. It just wasn't in his lifetime. About 250 years after Confucius, the Han dynasty started, and they made Confucianism the state ideology. All government officials studied Confucian teachings, and a golden era of peace and prosperity was born. Throughout the next 2500 years, all the way to present day, Confucian teachings remained widely studied and used.


So perhaps another reason why Confucius chased those seemingly impossible ideals is because he wasn't impatient for quick results. He knew that he might not see results in his lifetime, but if he didn't work towards them, then the future generations wouldn't have a chance at them either. Thus, Confucius focused on doing his utmost to plant the seeds for an ideal world. When the conditions will become ripe for those seeds to grow and fruit is of secondary importance, but at least he planted the seeds, and he can leave this world with a peaceful conscience knowing that he did his best for a worthy cause.


From Confucius's heroic example, I became more motivated to seek and pursue an ideal. I really hope that everyone in the world can have great wisdom and kindness because I believe these are two keys to a meaningful and well-lived life. Confucius also taught us to start with improving ourselves; only when we defeat the villains within ourselves can we solve the problems outside. When we improve, we set a good example for others, and others will naturally be interested in learning from us without any forcing. In this way, we naturally spread our influence broader and broader.


Is there an ideal that you strive for? Who is it for? What villains do you need to overcome?


Weekly Wisdom #279


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