Nietzsche once said there is as much skill and beauty in the act of walking as there is in the painting of a masterpiece. His reasoning, weird and sensible all at once, is that if you actually examine what happens when we walk, we see a beautiful medley of different actions and thoughts all working in tandem with each other.
Like a flawlessly conducted symphony, when we walk we use dozens of muscles, involve all of our arms and legs, flex our core to keep balanced and bob our heads to keep everything flowing along. For Nietzsche, the complexity of walking was in every way comparable to the skills and nuance of a Mozart concerto or a Van Gogh self-portrait.
The reason we don’t drop to our feet in awe of the sight of our neighbour strutting to work is, again according to Nietzsche, because everyone can walk. Everyone can accomplish this special task, this little piece of art, and so nobody sees how special it is. Instead, we focus our amazement on the things that we can’t do. Here, the composer or the musician or the artist comes back to the fore.
Nietzsche is perfectly happy to concede that it’s just human nature that we are impressed by what we cannot easily do. Anyone who has picked up a paintbrush instantly knows how impressive the works of Picasso truly are. After your first guitar lesson you are likely to find Jimi Hendrix in higher regard. It’s just human nature.
While Nietzsche’s musing about walking was chiefly concerned with our attraction to art, he highlights a central truth about human nature: we are more likely to be impressed by (and therefore, to admire) the things that we cannot do, rather than the everyday things that are necessary to daily life.
If you ask any random group “who are the heroes of the world?”, you’ll get a variety of answers that share a common theme. Some would list their sporting heroes, athletes who inspire through their redoubtable effort and dedication. Others, the science-lovers, perhaps, will say that astronauts are the real heroes, the cream of our intellectual crop, flying off into space and telling the world of the things they learn. The more culturally minded might speak about the great musicians or movie stars of their time, the people who bring entertainment to millions. These ‘heroes’ are individuals who are lauded due to their unflagging dedication to a cause, because they have trained themselves to do things that seem impossible to the common person.
However, if we can accept what Nietzsche says about the beauty of walking, we start to wonder if the mere difficulty of these tasks is enough to warrant calling the people who carry them out heroes. Isn’t it too simple to say that, just because something is difficult to accomplish, we should therefore raise up and adore those who accomplish these difficult tasks?
While sportspeople and astronauts and pop stars are indeed exemplary and inspirational figures, heroes of one sort, to be sure, it can also be said that the ‘true’ heroes are those who carry out tasks that are not just difficult to accomplish, but that are vital to protecting and enriching and serving the greater good of society.
Moreover, if these tasks are undesirable, if they pay poorly, if they’re stressful and if they’re thankless, we have all the more reason to call those who carry them out true heroes. The great irony, of course, is that the more vital a job is to the functioning of society, the worse paying and less desirable they tend to be. A few examples can show this quite clearly.
Elementary School Teachers
What is more vital to the improvement of a society than the proper education of said society’s next generation? If we look back to those living in the golden ages of Greece and Rome, it’s obvious that the importance of a good education was plainly seen. Entire wars were sometimes fought to steal away (or steal back) one scholarly teacher or another. It’s a simple truth: an educated population will aspire, and improve, and make better what came before them.
It makes perfect sense, then, that elementary school teachers should be some of the most well regarded, highly paid people in society. The first step in a good education is usually the most important one: elementary schools are at the vanguard of a society’s self-improvement.
Only, it’s not the case.
While pop stars earn millions for every album, teachers the world-over get by on what amounts to a pittance by comparison. Who wants to be a teacher? It doesn’t pay well. It doesn’t get you a lot of esteem at parties. Who hasn’t heard the rather idiotic phrase “those who can’t do teach“? A whole profession of heroes work tirelessly and get no (or very little) thanks. Nietzsche would not be pleased.
In the digital age, police are getting a bad reputation. It’s hard not to browse youtube or reddit and not be confronted with the latest incident of police brutality from one country or another. In America there is an increasing wave of mistrust building against police. While some would argue that this mistrust is entirely justified, the fact of the matter is that even with a handful of videos showing police behaving shamefully (or even criminally) we must not forget that the vast majority of police work hard every day to protect and serve their society.
People seem not to acknowledge anymore the mental stress that police are placed under when they respond to a robbery, or an incident of domestic violence. When most people would justifiably turn and run the other way, police have to run towards such dangers. They go to work everyday not knowing what lies around every corner.
It’s not that they are living in constant danger of getting murdered, it’s that they know, somewhere in the back of their mind, that there is always a tiny chance that something could go terribly wrong. These people are true heroes, but like most public servants, they’re not paid or respected accordingly. While movie stars walk down red carpets in suits to the cries of paparazzi, police are greeted with angry shouts as often as they are met with smiles.
A group who often go entirely unnoticed and underpaid. They work in dirt — literally — and they barely get paid anything for doing it. Modern cities can’t do without proper waste disposal. If the garbage men of the world were to all go on strike, our lives would become almost unthinkably horrid.
Garbage men pick up what we are too lazy (or too busy) to dispose of ourselves. They work hard every day, their jobs vital to how the world works, but they are the butt of jokes, the scary stories told to children. “If you don’t do your homework you’re going to end up collecting garbage for a living” –who hasn’t heard something like that at some stage in their lives?
Yet the truth of the matter is that, even though collecting garbage isn’t difficult on a technical level, it’s still a hard and dirty job. More importantly, their work is vitally integral to our standards of life. We should pay these people well. They’re doing work many of us would balk at, without any respect, and without proper pay. By any standards, someone who can do all of that should be considered a hero.
Nurses and Doctors
A possible exception to the rule, doctors and nurses do get well-paid (doctors, at least) and are well respected. However, when we look at the effort and dedication these people put into every day of work, it’s easy to see that they are deserving of even more respect.
Anyone who has put themselves or a family member into the hands of a doctor or nurse knows that these individuals are special. They work long hours, they see life and death on a daily basis, and they have an enormous weight of responsibility on their shoulders, yet every day they come back to work and do it all again.
What’s more, apart from being technically excellent, they have to have a good bedside manner — they have to know how to talk to and comfort people, putting them at ease in their darkest hours. It’s amazing how a good nurse will always know just what to say to ease your tension, or simply make you laugh. The sensitivity of doctors, even when they are under enormous pressure, is nothing short of mind-blowing. These people are truly heroes.
It’s easy to look at these examples and simply shrug your shoulders. Yes, you might say, these people are the real heroes, but it’s just human nature for us to focus on the pop stars and the movie stars — that kind of thing can’t be changed.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Simply looking back through history, we can see that different societies found different people inspirational. The Roman gladiator, the Greek philosopher, the tribal shamans, politicians — all throughout history, different people have been idolized. Who is to say that we can’t change our own society, to put the people who really deserve the esteem at the top of the pyramid. If we did, we would all be a lot better off.