In the media coverage surrounding the recent passing of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, perhaps the most reverberating theme has been that of his role as a hero. This word gets thrown around a lot and deserves a little attention. Individuals who earn this title do things that go beyond themselves. Whether it’s a onetime action or a lifelong series of activities, the common factor for all heroes is that their actions do good things for other people. It can be as simple and direct as a fireman risking his life to save a child from a burning building or, as in Mr. Mandela’s case, the transformation of an entire society. The other common factor is that the hero isn’t doing it for “selfish” motives. The fireman isn’t looking for a promotion and Mr. Mandela wasn’t acting out of political ambition – in fact, he turned down a second term. The hero is seen as acting in response to a “higher” principal, which is where it gets tricky.

The standard of what makes a higher principal higher is harder to pin down than it appears. The word that gets used a lot is “selfless”. In the recent “CNN Heroes” broadcast, it came up constantly. Whether they were building homes for wounded U.S. veterans, providing medical care to impoverished African communities or organizing their fellow citizens to clean up trash-clogged waterways, the thing this diverse group of good people was portrayed as having in common was their “selflessness”. I believe that if we look a little closer, we’ll see that this idea is selling the heroes short, and is missing the real point.

A truly “selfless” person would be hard to be around. A person with no sense of themselves or their own value would be very unlikely to inspire other people to serve the greater good, which is what heroism is really all about. Heroes are heroes because they make us all want to do better. They raise our image of what human beings are capable of. In our “better selves”, we want to have the courage of the fireman who is willing to risk it all to save a fellow human being. That kind of person has a strong sense of identity, very strong – he or she considers human life worth saving. To think the hero would take his or her own life out of the equation is ridiculous. The truth is that the hero values his or her own life more than most of us do, much more. That’s where their courage comes from. The courageous person is the one who doesn’t kid themselves about the hard fact that all human beings, including themselves, are mortal. They know what they’re risking. The courageous person is the one who knows damn well you can’t beat death – that it always wins in the end – but the hero says not today – death isn’t getting that little girl on the third floor- it’s going to have to take me first. It takes a person with a pretty high opinion of themselves to stand up to death and spit in its eye. The truly selfless person is the one who started the fire to collect the insurance money.

If Nelson Mandela had known the day the prison door slammed shut behind him that he’d live to become President of the whole country, the sacrifice of his liberty would have been pointless. The day he went in, he had to assume he wasn’t coming out. A selfless person would never have been able to sweat out 27 years – or 27 seconds. The selfless person has nothing to sacrifice, nothing to lose. The hero has everything to lose and knows it – everything but themselves. Mandela went to jail because he was unwilling to live in a world that didn’t measure up to him. He was a free man long before the key turned the other way and the doors opened. He never stopped being free. He was never locked up.

Heroes are people who don’t wait for the world to catch up with their idea of how they’d like the world to be. If their image of the world includes the notion that fragile, mortal human beings need to look out for each other, the fact that many of their fellow human beings or, to get specific, their own oppressive governments don’t agree doesn’t stop them. The fact that their actions are for the most part symbolic and can only “fix” some small part of the bigger problem doesn’t stop them. The fact that a wall of flame or a uniformed man with a gun tells them to cut it out and behave like everybody else doesn’t stop them. The fact that they may die trying and not achieve their goal doesn’t stop them.

In “The Holy Bluff”, I talk a lot about good symbolism vs. bad symbolism. A man willing to put his life on the line for human liberty is good symbolism. A government that holds onto its power by legitimatizing the oppression of most of its own citizens for the advantage of a few is bad symbolism. Good symbolism is contagious. Bad symbolism stops at the border. Good symbolism is holy, in the fullest sense of the term,    which is “wholeness” – the whole picture, the whole story, the whole truth. Good symbolism tells the truth. Bad symbolism is lying.

Heroes are simply people who see the truth and act accordingly. This may seem like a rare commodity, especially if you’re watching the rest of CNN’s programming – but it really isn’t. The fact that the “heroes”’ actions reverberate with so many of us suggests that we’ve all got secret heroes hiding inside of us.  It’s time we started listening to them. Now more than ever, we need all the heroes we can get.