So You Want to be a Hero?

We all want to be heroes in our own stories–the winner, the one who wears the laurel crown, the good guy at the end. And we would like to do this without getting dirty, messy, or making hard ethical decisions. But that’s not how heroes live.


Alexandrine in Africa, via

The first hero, Gilgamesh, (who lived around 2,700 BCE) was thrown out of a window by his father, and was saved by an eagle and raised by a gardener. Now that’s a story that would keep a therapist in business for a few lifetimes. He didn’t get to choose to be a hero, he was, well, thrown into it.

Odysseus, or Ulysses, left home to fight the Trojan War and was gone for 20 years. Talk about a tough commute–the poor guy had to run a foot race and win a wrestling match while the god Apollo helped his competitor. Then there was the trip home from the war, when his 12 ships were diverted by a storm. He had to deal with drugs (the Lotus-Eaters) and terrifying giants (the Cyclops) and had half his crew turned into pigs by Circe. That’s just a lot of messy work, no matter how big a hero you are.

Fast forward a few thousand years and you have heroes and heroines who also got messy and had problems. Mary Queen of Scots’ father died when she was six days old, she had a life-long squabble with her cousin, Elizabeth I, and spent 19 years in jail before being beheaded. Heroes have tough lives.

Alexandrine Tinne was the first female explorer to attempt to cross the Sahara Desert. She started at age 22, in 1862, and was so bug-bitten that she was unrecognizable. Of course, having her tent collapse in heavy rains couldn’t have been easy either. About three years later, she had lost both her mother and aunt to fevers. Her family turned against her, and, in the best  hero move, she did not go home to beg forgiveness and be “good.” Instead, she recognized that she could not go home again, and continued her quest, keeping journals that saved the lives of explorers after her. Her death in 1869 was horrible–her hand was cut off by a Tuareg warrior, and she was left to bleed to death.

Heroes don’t get to live quiet, tidy lives. Their lives are messy and soggy, and fraught. In fact, that’s what makes them heroes. Dealing with the messy stuff of life. Walking through it with insect-bites and wet tents. Because it is the determination and persistence that makes a hero a hero.

Heroes aren’t born that way. They become heroes by living lives that change them into heroes by walking through big challenges. Every day.

So if you choose the life of a hero, pack an extra pair of socks and expect some tough times. Because the life of a hero is in the living, not in the crown at the end. In the original Olympic games, the winners rode around the track in a carriage, while the laurel wreath was held over their head by a servant, who whispered into their ear: “All glory is fleeting.”

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and artist who teaches people to survive change.