Does Heroism Breed Tragedy?

ghettoI read a quote today that got me thinking about storytelling. According to one of our greatest English-language novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald, behind every hero is a tragedy.

I’ve been working with a good number of heroes lately, particularly for my work on the PTSD portion of the recent WXEL-TV Veterans’ Day special “Saving America’s Heroes.” These men and women surrendered (odd choice of words, isn’t it?) not only their time and physical health, but also a good deal of their sanity when they fought in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf. Whatever they did or however long they were in uniform, most of us would, I suspect, call them heroes. And I suspect most of us would call any suffering they endure a tragedy.

There is of course another kind of hero, however,  that most people do not consider when they come across the word. That is the tragic hero, a literary term reserved for those protagonists who are traditionally heroic in large part by virtue of their place in the world (in Shakespeare, they were noblemen) but who possess what literary theorists call a “tragic flaw,” some personality trait that more often than not is one of those juicy cardinal sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth or wrath. This tragic flaw serves as the catalyst for the hero’s downfall. We see this happening to our modern heroes all the time. The poster child for tragic heroism in our days has got to be Bill “Lust” Clinton, although it could be argued that Barack Obama may have a bit too much pride on his plate.

Anyway, there are plenty of people who suffer tragedies, real tragedies, who are not heroes. The tragedy of heroes is different from the tragedy of non-heroes for at least three reasons. First, a hero’s tragedy may not seem like a tragedy to others. I mean, tell someone who has lost a child that Bill Clinton’s tragedy was that his legacy was besmirched by his impeachment, and you’ll get a blank stare, at best. It’s a shame, perhaps, but not what most of us think of as a tragedy. That leads us to the second point: the tragedy is most often seen in the lost potential of the hero—what s/he might have done for humankind. Which leads us to reason three, which to my mind is the most telling: The tragedy is self-inflicted. There is something so chilling about self-inflicted wounds that we discuss suicide in hushed tones at a time when we shout about most other once-private topics from the rooftops. It’s just not natural, doing harm to oneself. The irony abounds. The hero’s enemies could not possibly bring down him or her as thoroughly, or as efficiently.

Back to storytelling. When we can tell ourselves and those we love and admire the stories of tragic heroes who have been felled by their  flaws, we might be able to change history. When we can help a hero create a new story that does not include the tragic flaw, we might be able to avert tragedy that ultimately affects us all.

We just might.

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