Every society needs heroes. And every society has them. The reason we don’t often see them is because we don’t bother to look.
There are two kinds of heroes. Heroes who shine in the face of great adversity, who perform an amazing feat in a difficult situation. And heroes who live among us, who do their work unceremoniously, unnoticed by many of us, but who make a difference in the lives of others.
Heroes are selfless people who perform extraordinary acts. The mark of heroes is not necessarily the result of their action, but what they are willing to do for others and for their chosen cause. Even if they fail, their determination lives on for others to follow. The glory lies not in the achievement, but in the sacrifice.
Heroes serve to remind us of the higher purpose of self and society. In the 1950s, when the Republic of Indonesia was a poor infant, my hometown of Pacitan in East Java could count on few comforts. Faith provided some relief from the pains of poverty, as did family. Many of us were nourished mostly on hope. And hope often came in the form of heroes—people whom we thought would bring us brighter days, like General Sudirman, one of Indonesia’s founding fathers, who fought for our independence. Heroes represented greatness, and aspirations. Because our lives seemed so small, our heroes had to be larger than life.
My father was a soldier in Indonesia’s then ragtag army, so in my humble household, the military was our hero, symbolizing honor, duty and nationhood. Back then, Indonesian soldiers were combatants who also acted as public servants. They were fierce and cunning warriors, but they also built roads and bridges, dug wells and canals.
Since those great revolutionary days, I have met many men and women who shaped my definition of heroism. During these dark days of natural disasters, both in my country and elsewhere, I am reminded of Catur. A lieutenant-colonel in Meulaboh, one of the Aceh towns hardest hit by the tsunami, Catur risked his life again and again to rescue survivors. He broke down in grief when he found out that his own wife and child had vanished—they’d been at the beach collecting seashells when the tsunami struck. But even then, he stayed at his post, and spent the whole day guiding Meulaboh residents to safety. His wife and child were never found.
Catur was one of many silent heroes that day, and in the days that followed. When I met him in Meulaboh, he did not tell me—his President—about his personal loss because he did not want to distract me from my job. I found out only later on from his peers.
My country is full of silent heroes. Butet Manurung, one of TIME’s heroes last year, had a near-impossible goal: eradicating illiteracy among the isolated tribes of the Sumatran jungle. She knew they would not come to her, so she went to them deep in the forests. At first, the tribes wanted nothing to do with her. But her resolve gained their trust, and today she continues to teach them reading and writing, living among them as if she were one of them. Butet represents the countless aid workers who wake each day to fight the odds—against malnutrition, disease, poverty. I have met teachers who walk tens of miles each day to reach their school—all for the meager reward of some $20 a month (and no doubt plenty of grief from their students). Yet they make the journey every day. They all are silent heroes.
So what is a hero? Who is a hero? Is it the decorated general who leads his army to victory, or the unknown soldier quietly obeying orders? Is it the researcher who finds a cure for cancer, or the country doctor treating the sick? Should a hero be one who saves thousands of lives, or who comforts just one? And what drives them, these men and women we call our idols, our mentors, our elders, our friends? Is it duty? Determination? Perseverance?
All these factors play their part. But I believe there is another vital, unquantifiable element, and that is love. It was love—a love for education, a love of humanity—that sent Butet Manurung to the jungle, and keeps her there. Love—for their students—makes bearable the long miles those schoolteachers walk each day. And love—for his community, for his country—drove Catur into the same perilous sea that took his family.
Perhaps Catur did not set out to be a hero; no doubt he would rather have his family back. But circumstances stirred something in him, something he could not hold back. What Manurung does—giving up her way of life to fight illiteracy—is too extreme for some, but not to her.
I often wonder when I meet these brave men and women who are our heroes: what would I do in the same situation? Would I rush out to those deadly waters if my family or my country needed me to? Would you?
Perhaps there is a hero in all of us. We just need to look.
Written by : Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Asia Times Magazine