Praising Quiet Heroes

I had long been pondering this subject and finally came across the perfect quote, from Felix Baumgartner, the Australian daredevil skydiver who broke the sound barrier in the highest free fall ever: “When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore, you do not think about gaining scientific data. The only thing you want is to come back alive.”

Why is it that this sort of understatement always impresses us more than boasting, however justified?  Along these lines I’m reminded of an old Paul Greenberg column which celebrates the humble charm of earlier celebrities:

Fred Astaire danced with a succession of a beauties… yet all eyes stayed on him. Men, women, children, all were captivated. Still are. And it wasn’t because he upstaged anyone; that was not his style, or his code. To quote his biographer, Bob Thomas: “He was feverishly competitive, but always against himself.” How American. Yes, there was a time when “We’re Number One!” was not the national chant, when the national ideal was not to defeat others but to outdo ourselves, when baseball and grace… dominated the national consciousness.

One calls to mind Gary Cooper playing Lou Gehrig. But the “strong silent type” on the playing field and battlefield was displaced by show-offs doing their victory dance in the end-zone and the shrill bravado of “Another one bites the dust.”

The new role models are not strong and soft-spoken but bullying and voluble. It used to be that movie heroes employed force reluctantly and sparingly, as in Shane and the Quiet Man. Now they relish savagery, looking and acting like television wrestlers. A gladiator is the very opposite of the hero. He is the culmination of the anti-hero. By this I don’t mean the noble “outsider” like Sanjuro from the Akira Kurosawa Samurai films, who in many ways upheld the old verities in his idiosyncratic, individualist manner. Rather, the modern (or postmodern) anti-hero is someone who defies civility and civilization because those things place limits on his ego.

The classic champion wasn’t making a statement about himself. Outside extraordinary circumstances, he looked and acted very ordinary. He shunned accolades and the exhibitionism of “human interest” stories. Like the Lone Ranger, the quiet hero made a subtle exit as soon as his job was done. “Who was that masked man?” We didn’t need to know his name. His deeds spoke for themselves. One thinks of those whalers depicted in Moby-Dick:

I was preparing to hear some good stories about whaling; to my no small surprise, nearly every man maintained a profound silence. And not only that, but they looked embarrassed…. A curious sight; these bashful bears, these timid warrior whalemen!

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