On heroing

Once upon a college-time, I found myself so useless–to myself, to others, to the world–that I wanted to die.

I challenged myself to find one thing I liked about myself; if I didn’t, I’d kill myself. If I could find one thing, though, I figured I could probably find more … with some patience.

I decided my calves were pretty rad. Seeing that one good thing paved the way for my sticking around to see more, so that one little thing meant everything: choosing life, as opposed to suicide.

Over time, I came to have faith in words. I understood them and became adept at shaping them to express precisely what I meant.

Then I began reading Neil Postman, who helped me understand some of the biases in words and word combinations, particularly English ones. Nouns are especially appropriate to represent some physical items (table; car; sandwich), but help create the illusion of stasis in some more dynamic “things” (language; people; school).

There’s a lot to this, but some of the biggest questions Postman opened for me were about this illusion of stasis, or unchangeability. By referring to “language” instead of “languaging,” English speakers may perceive language as an unchanging behemoth instead of sets of ongoing processes. By referring to people by individual, set names, we tell ourselves each person is one relatively stable unit instead of a changeable, changing entity who does the hard, ongoing work of “personing” in a rapidly changing world.

Some statements presented as fact aren’t, really.

“Projection,” as the term is used by semanticists such as Korzybski and Hayakawa, means that we transfer our own feelings and evaluations to objects outside of us. For example, we say, “John is stupid” or “Helen is smart,” as if “stupidity” and “smartness” were characteristics of John and Helen. A literal translation of “John is stupid” (that is, its most scientific meaning) might go something like this: “When I perceive John’s behavior, I am disappointed or distressed or frustrated or disgusted. The sentence I use to express my perceptions and evaluation of these events is ‘John is stupid.'”

When we say, “John is stupid,” we are talking about ourselves much more than we are talking about John. And yet, this fact is not reflected at all in this statement.

Language might actually be used to conceal more than it reveals.

At first, it felt liberating to be able to see some of the processes behind purported “things” I’d wrongly perceived as more or less stable. Slowly, though, it destroyed my faith in something that had almost always been a bedrock for me: that I could set forth words that showed precisely what I meant to almost everyone who read them. But if meaning is projected onto words by a perceiver instead of simply absorbed as stated, what I stated was far less important than the meanings being projected onto my words by readers/hearers.

With everything apparently objective revealed as potentially quite subjective, then, I lost faith in my ability to English-language … or that there was much merit in bothering to even try. I was especially disturbed by one kind of illusion I began seeing everywhere, especially in my own words: one of scale. Words can help things I’d consider enormous seem small, and can give small things an illusion of comparative enormity.

For example: If it’s a “disaster” when I flub an important meeting, what is it–apart from, of course, a crime–when hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes and retirement funds due to the bad behavior of a small number of extraordinarily powerful bankers? When those bankers aren’t even held accountable, but slapped on the hand by having less-than-incremental fees effectively taken from investors … as punishment? (How is that “punishment”? How does that deter abuse of power?)

If it’s “crushing” to remember a particularly bad memory, what is it, then, when entire villages are literally crushed by American-sold (and, often, -dropped) bombs? Especially when many of those bombs are “gifts” that keep giving for decades to come?

If an especially tasty hot dog can be “awesome,” then what’s the feeling you get standing and looking upon grand portions of the Grand Canyon?

If it’s “amazing” to get a great bonus at work, what is is when a family is granted asylum … and thus given a chance at life when they’d have almost certainly died had they stayed in their (prior) home?

With so many hard-to-see flaws in tools of meaning conveyance, words, I stopped seeing the point of trying to negotiate them.

If I was no longer a(n effective) worker-of-words … what was I, even?

Last week, I was fairly bludgeoned–multiple times daily, each day–by a word that I’d always translated as representing goodness.

It didn’t feel like bludgeoning at first. It was just a word being offered up to evoke certain positive feelings and impressions. It was only after I’d heard it the twentieth-or-so time the first day that I started grimacing each time I heard it. At first, I thought something like, “Ugh, using this word anywhere and everywhere robs it of its power. It becomes as mundane as the word ‘chair,’ or ‘rabbit.’ It loses its significance.”

By the second day, I wanted a device that would block this word (and heavily related ones) from penetrating my eardrums. But it was good I couldn’t, because the more I was bludgeoned with it, the more I kept thinking critically about why it bugged me so much. I decided that maybe it was a word that deserved to lose its significance.

By the third day, I felt the closest thing to language-certainty I’d felt in months. That word, I decided, could go suck a big bowl of something unpleasant. If I wasn’t certain of much else where words were concerned, I now stood resolute that this one word that’s been such an important part of my personal history wasn’t only not positive, but outright garbage-worthy.

That word: superhero.

(I’m death-glaring at the word, taunting me from my very own screen, right now.)

What is a superhero, exactly? Why, a hero with superpowers, natch.

But, wait. How does the level of available-to-an-individual power have anything to do with their level of heroism? Is it acts of heroism or the kind of power involved that matters? Either a person does heroic things, or they don’t.

But then, what does it mean to do “heroic” things? Is it physically clobbering bad guys in their bad faces with one’s bad fist? Is it rescuing one person from a burning building, or a whole family from a sinking car? Are these things really more noble or important than shaping a better world by showing up with love, time and time again, changing life for the better in individually small and subtle ways with a cumulative profound impact, as my godmother did for me? As someone I love recently told me I did for them? Is the “hero” the most important part of the story, or is that role reserved for justice? Or the person(s) who can breathe easier thanks to those actions?

As I learned more about my still-new-to-me profession, these thoughts kept rolling around in my mind’s background. It’d take a novella’s worth of words to lay them all out, but I did reach some important-to-me conclusions. In their simplest form, these were:

  1. The level of one’s personal (super)power is irrelevant to the intention that guides her to do things that improves others’ lives. The kind of power isn’t as important as the willingness to use whatever power’s available for life-improving.
  2. The noun “hero” isn’t generally useful to me. It creates the illusion of binary: that one either is or is not a hero. Like a light switch, it’s a state that is either toggled on or not. There’s no in between. On a deeper level, it also perpetuates the idea that the doer–not the doing, or the changing–is central.
  3. To that point, if the word “hero” must be used (and I’d argue against its use, if I had infinite time and resources), it ought be used as a verb: “That person did some pretty fine heroing today!” or “I wish I’d heroed like Joan did just there. Oh, well. Maybe tomorrow!”

These conclusions and the perceptions behind them were shaped by non-Postman books I’ve also read recently. Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, does some work that profoundly, definitively changes many individuals’ lives for the better. He works to get folks off Death Row, others out of unjust sentences, and–lovingly–to challenge others’ ideas of justice, mercy, and “merit.” Though it’s not his purpose to hero, he arguably goes out and heroes virtually every damn day. An essential part of his heroing is that he doesn’t appear to perceive his acts as heroing: he is not “saving” people, themselves implicitly deserving of justice and mercy apart from his actions; he is increasing the level of justice in the world we share.

And Arundhati Roy? She, too, writes about justice, mercy, and “merit,” about how many people deserve so much more of this than they’re offered by the governments of purported democracies like India and the United States, where elections are held but–to quote a stranger with whom I chatted in traffic earlier–voting may well be “goddamn futile” for effecting meaningful change in most people’s lives.

Roy writes with powerful love even when India’s Supreme Court charges her, when people picket and rage at her in front of her home, when she is implicitly and explicitly threatened with acts of violence. Despite these challenges, she chooses not-silence, because of how she understands that even silence is political when you see how many people are suffering, and how greatly. She, too, could be said to hero often, working not to “save” people perceived as lesser-than or needing salvation, but to bring justice and mercy that shouldn’t require so much work to achieve so very incrementally.

In The End of Imagination, she writes about someone else I’d characterize as doing something as close to heroing as I can identify: Noam Chomsky. For many who haven’t read his work, or much of it, he’s taken–on someone else’s authority–to be throwing around unwarranted, useless accusations for the purpose of undermining the U.S. government. For many who have read much of his work, on the other hand, his passion for universal justice and mercy is apparent. About Chomsky, Roy writes:

As someone who grew up on the cusp of both American and Soviet propaganda (which more or less neutralized each other), when I first read Noam Chomsky, it occurred to me that his marshaling of evidence, the volume of it, the relentlessness of it, was a little–how shall I put it?–insane. Even a quarter of the evidence he had compiled would have been enough to convince me. I used to wonder why he needed to do so much work. But now I understand that the magnitude and intensity of Chomsky’s work is a barometer of the magnitude, scope, and relentlessness of the propaganda machine that he’s up against.

While these folks often choose to hero, I’m sure there are also moments where they choose … something else, which is both fine and human. Moments of heroing aren’t undone by moments of not-heroing.

There’s a capacity to hero–to increase justice in the world because it makes the world better both to specific people and in general–in every moment, of every day, for every person.

Once upon a time, I tried to find one thing I liked about myself. I thought that if I found one thing, I could probably find others, and that the things I found would protect me from wanting to end my relationship with this pained and painful world.

I was right. Once I saw good, it was easier to start seeing more of it, and I stopped seeing so much bad. And so, though it’s a small thing to find that first just-one-thing, it can also be the beginning of everything; the foundation.

So it is that I’m thankful for a word–“superhero”–whose concealed assumptions tick me off enough to trade sleep for shaking my fist at them. This might not be heroing, but hey: it’s something. It’s a start. With any luck, I have lots of days left to, whenever possible, choose to hero.


mom me orange


  1. May 8, 2017 at 5:08 am

    So glad you’re back. Have really missed your voice.

  2. May 8, 2017 at 6:49 am

    What a post!

  3. May 8, 2017 at 7:28 am

    Reading your stuff restores my faith in the English language, my dear.

  4. May 8, 2017 at 7:59 am

    I love this view of language, and hence this view of life, of people, of hope ❤ so glad to read your words!

  5. May 8, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    Language is powerful. And sometimes mystifying. It reveals, it conceals…
    And how I love to dance with it, wrestle with it.
    Hero is a word I rarely use, because I am not comfortable with its common ‘languaging’ use. Sporting hero for example.
    Heroing on the other hand is a concept I can (and will) embrace.
    Thank you.

  6. May 8, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    There you go, making my brain pop again… 🙂

  7. May 9, 2017 at 3:15 am

    Interesting read, thank you for sharing and being a hero, we need more people to show up in their own lives and not live vicariously through others. You are heard and I love what you have to say xx

  8. May 9, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Almost all words have both connotation and denotation, and learning to use both is an art form. I remember a paper I wrote for the high school newspaper when kids were being expelled “on suspicion” (of what no one knew.) I tried all my usual resources, and still couldn’t find the precise word I wanted, so I finally asked an English teacher. She read the article I’d written and told me the word I was looking for was “kafkaesque.” She was correct; that was the adjective I needed to make the school board sit up and take notice.

  9. May 10, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    So glad I read this today. Languaging and Heroing, yes both needful things. Most grateful you found that one good thing.

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