I am not a great believer in heroes.
I have always felt that attributing such a lofty label onto a person dehumanizes them and removes the true greatness of what they achieved or who they were. For me, true greatness, true acts of admiration are achieved in spite of our very human failings and fallibility, so to tarnish them in gold and hold them on high removes the qualities which make their actions great in the first place.
Of course, all these elements are removed from the one person who I truly consider a hero; the tank man. Not his real name, obviously, but the ‘tank man’ remains to me the pinnacle of human aspiration. During the protests in China, Tienanmen Square became the focal point of media attention after the massacre on June 3rd and 4th, 1989. Hundreds of unarmed students and peaceful protesters were murdered by military troops commissioned by the government. On the morning of the 5th, seventeen tanks drove out of the square, only to come face to face with a lone man standing in their path. Watching the footage now, there is nothing extraordinary about the man, completely non-descript in every way, as if a manifestation of all those around him. The only thing that marked him as different were the shopping bags in his hands and the fact that he was standing before seventeen tanks and refusing to allow them passage.
No one knows what his intent was. None may ever know what he had hoped to achieve, but in that moment, the power that he mustered for the watching world was unimaginable. I remember, at nine years old seeing the images on the news and being awestruck that one man, with not a raised fist or weapon in his hand could defy these great monstrosities, these engines of destruction with pure force of will. This was not a super-hero, not a figment of an over active imagination, but a man, one soul acting in its purest form. The day before, troops had shot into crowds of unarmed civilians. A military tank had run through a crowd of protesters, killing eleven and wounding many more. The footage of the tank man’s actions are ingrained in the public consciousness now and through this, a certain safety is implied as we know he survived, we know the forum upon which these images are played are safe. Yet watching at the time, the inherent danger of his actions are implicit, the certainty of his death imbues every action with a sense of doom. At one point there are gunshots and you see the man tense, his movements changed. Yet he doesn’t stop and what most don’t see in the edited clips is him climbing upon the tank itself, looking for some form of contact through which he can communicate with the soldiers within. There have been few more allegorical actions than a single man looking to find ingress through machinery, to make contact, searching for the humanity within.
When this seemingly fails, the ‘tank man’ seems to falter, as if his actions meant nothing and he stops, out of the tanks path. Then they begin moving again and he immediately, without hesitation places himself back in their path. He will not be swayed from his purpose, no matter what. Eventually, other protesters remove him from the tank’s path and escort him back into the crowd where he disappeared and remains forever so.
All these actions are everything we aspire to as humans; impassioned, capricious, benevolent, humane, carved from pure resolve. Yet what has etched this figure into my mind is the fact that we still do not know who he is. He has never come forward to claim any recognition or fame, no family member has ever stepped up on his behalf. Of course, there is always the possibility that this unknown hero and his entire family were wiped out, removed from the earth by nefarious government agents enraged at the example of empowerment he had set. Yet I choose to believe that ‘tank man’ is still out there and has simply chosen not to court the attention, that his motive remains as pure now as it did then; to affect change, to simply do what he felt was right.
This is an anomaly in today’s society, where most almost seem to demand external validation or glory for the most mundane of actions. This denotes a shallowness, a lack of self worth. ‘Tank man’ does not have a youtube channel. I find it hard to imagine that the many who have truly contributed to the worth of humankind would have spent too much time on Facebook or ‘tweeting.’ Perhaps greatness is preceded by an innate sense of self worth, a lack of need for outside approval and a greater desire to act upon that which is important. A realization that the act, in and of itself, is enough.
William James Sidis was a childhood genius who also garnered my admiration. He died a reclusive book clerk, his entire existence dedicated to burying any semblance of fame or notoriety. Sidis had spent a great amount of his considerable mental energies, exhaustively studying the settlement of America in his book, the Tribes and the States. During this research, he had taken in many of the philosophies of Native American tribes, specifically the teachings of the Okamakammesset tribe. They believed that one’s contribution to society is best served in anonymity; the complete antithesis of what today’s society teaches us.
It is the embodiment of what ‘tank man’ has taught us.
What greatness is denied us due to our need to be recognized?
Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Mother Teresa. Einstein. Desmond Tutu. Hippocrates. Oskar Schindler. Louis Pasteur. Aristotle. Lincoln. Florence Nightingale. Herodotus. Nelson Mandela.
I refuse to believe that any of these great people acted upon their greater instincts to see how many ‘likes’ they could garner on the social media of their choosing. Very few great achievements, great marks on this world are attributable to the need for ‘thanks’. Their accomplishments were in the deeds themselves; real change, true benevolence, absolute altruism.
There is, really, no such thing as a ‘hero.’
There are simply those who are willing to act for the greater good.
With no price attached. No condition applied.
Just because they can.