This week is the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square. For five weeks students from many Chinese Universities had collected in Tiananmen Square. They were peacefully demanding more human rights. The protests had been going on for over five weeks. The Chinese Government grew afraid they were loosing control. On the evening of June 3ed 1989 Chinese officials sent in tanks and personal carriers. They broke up the protest by crushing and shooting students in their sleep. The next morning the Square was empty. The only thing that remained were the tanks. As they were attempting to move back to their base a lone man, carrying two shopping bags appeared in the middle of the road and blocked the tanks. People on the scene were sure he would be killed. Yet as mysteriously as he appeared he suddenly melted into the crowd and to this day he has never been identified.. Fortunately his courageous actions were recorded by journalists and what emerged is one of the most powerful and iconic pictures of the twentieth century. The picture is known as “Tank Man” and it has been reproduced millions of times around the world. This picture has been reported to change countless lives by inspiring others to take courageous actions. It inspired students in East Berlin to begin to destroy the Berlin Wall.
What are the essential qualities that all heroes both real and fictional share? Heroes provide the audience with a clear point of view. In other words they take a stand. Or they expand their territory. Churchill took a stand against Hitler in 1939 when many other ministers wanted only to placate Germany. It was no accident that soon after taking his stand Churchill became Prime Minister. Another universal quality is that a hero’s actions are not primarily motivated by self interest. Joseph Campbell has said, “When we stop thinking primarily of ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness” (1948).
People don’t have to do spectacular things to be heroic. A close friend of mine is an example of an everyday hero. She works in the field of mental health. Everyday she faces frightened and angry patients, who can act in ways that make themselves and others miserable and ill. Facing that audience everyday and moving these people into a healthier way of life is heroic. My friend is acquiring the ability to gently hold her ground as she guides patients toward greater self understanding and compassion. This is what true heroes do they help us remember what’s good about being alive and their actions point the way.