We all, in our minds, have some kind of image of a "hero." For some of us, myself included, it’s the images we see in comic books and movies, caped crusaders or courageous officers of the law who stand up to great evil in order to protect the rest of us. For some others a hero is a leader, a politician or general or protester who organizes his or her fellow human beings in defense of the beautiful and the good in this world. For still more of us, a hero is the person who makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving up their own lives in the face of great evil or danger so that others can live in safety.
These people are all heroes, of course, and all deserve our respect. But the vast majority of people to whom the word "hero" actually applies are nothing like that. The vast majority of heroes are the kind of people who will scale a tree to save a cat or shovel a neighbor’s driveway or walk a complete stranger home from the train station. Their heroism won’t end up on news stations, and it's not evil they're fighting as much as apathy. They save the day in a thousand little ways, just trying to help other people day in and day out, because they recognize that other people are worth helping.
That's what connects the images of heroes in our heads to the real-world heroes that walk among us everyday: they know they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. Whether it’s being wiling to die for one’s country, or just caring enough about other people to help a complete stranger find their child in a grocery store, all acts of heroism are linked by the realization that we are involved in something much grander than ourselves. That, more than anything else, is what’s worth celebrating: the hero’s understanding. Nothing else, at the end of the day, is required to be heroic: not wealth, not talent, not youth, not strength, not even bravery. All a hero needs to be a hero is to realize they’re part of something bigger than themselves, whether that's their country or their city or even the human race.
So here’s to the small-town heroes. Here’s to the people who mend fences and buy strangers ice cream and stand up for their friends, and never ask for anything in return except that we pass it on. Here’s to the people who do good because they learned a long time ago that good is simply worth doing. Keep teaching us how it’s done.