The Heroic Ideal: An Argument for Effort.

19 mins read

This article has sat in a browser tab on my laptop for more than a month. Not because it’s all too hard to write. And, not because it’s too complicated to think about. But, because this idea – the ‘Heroic Ideal’, that is – asserts a few things that create a foundation for pretty much everything we do. That’s a heavy thing to consider. Further, it’s a tremendously heavy thing to write about.

Nonetheless, I find this back-burnered article simmering to the top of my to-do’s. Despite my sometimes focused efforts to cast this idea aside, I’m bound to the truth. The Heroic Ideal as a premise for determination or grit is becoming synonymous with SIXFEET. After a few good months of thinking about it, I’m ready to write about it.

So, today, I’d like to examine the second part of this idea.

I believe that there does exist a heroic ideal among the people we serve.

I also believe that the existence of this notion calls upon a moral imperative to act.

“That’s just a normal medical run.”

This winter, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to design a leadership course for my fire department. I presented a section on ‘The Heroic Ideal’ as a means to explain the standards for action that are placed upon us as responders. These standards are cemented when formal leadership positions are pinned to our uniforms, too. First, we’re measured by the person we see in the mirror. If you look closely enough, you already know what you need to work on. Second, we’re measured by how prepared we can be to work with our crew. Finally, we’re measured by them.

We’re asked – begged – to advance on the impossible. To look somebody in the eye, through the storm and say “I’m going to get you out of here.”

When presenting this to our department’s leadership, I told the story of my son’s febrile seizure.

We didn’t really even know febrile seizures were a thing. When our son was suffering, we didn’t know what to do. When we called 911, we desperately wished that somebody with honed skill, forged mindset and the courage to act would help our family.

“With all due respect,” one of our members started, “that was a traumatic scene for your family, but it was probably just another medical run for the firefighters who showed up.”


The premise of ‘the heroic ideal’ isn’t something that is measured by you or your team.

Whether you’re comfortable with it or not, the people who call you to respond are actively hoping for a hero.

Do you know who Danya Topham is?

Late into the afternoon, Danya Topham was settled in and watching her sons as she heard somebody yell from the adjacent baseball field – ‘Call 911!’

Darren Ewell had collapsed on the field.

From here, Danya did not have to get involved. She didn’t have to jump up from her seat and run down to the field. Danya didn’t have to push through the crowd of onlookers. She didn’t have to start CPR.

But, Danya is a nurse. So, Danya did what nurses do.

Now, here’s how we can use this story to illustrate a point I’m trying to make. Whether the experience is ordinary for the responder or not, the people trapped in the grip of that crisis you’re responding to are desperately wishing for you to be fully prepared, switched on and ready to work.

How many times do you figure Danya has given CPR?

Enough to call the experience of performing CPR as somewhat regular?

It doesn’t matter.

This time, on this ball field, in this specific moment is all that matters to Darren Ewell, his family and the other players surrounding him on the mound.

Nobody forced Danya to be here.

One thing we relentlessly tagline on social media is the idea that your role, as the person who said they would be there for another person in a time of need, is not something that was forced on you.

Danya spent thousands of dollars on her education. She put in hours upon hours of work to secure that credential. Then, she canvassed local clinics until one of them picked her up and took a chance. Like all of our departments did. They looked her over and decided – sure, we’ll give you a shot.

Then, after a week of relentless service, Danya found herself at a baseball game, watching her kids. Then, off in the distance, an additional call for help. Despite years of constant pressure, Danya decided to run toward that man and literally get down onto her knees, pushing and pleading for his heart to keep pumping.

And it did.

If only because Danya decided to go, it did.

Of all the options presented to her, Danya chose service.

Now, I’ve never met her, but I’d hazard a good guess that somewhere deep down inside of her, Danya is the type of person that decides to be of service more often than not.

And now, faithful reader, is the time you get to measure up.

Because, if you’re currently serving by way of the first responder community, the military, nursing, forensics, animal welfare or some forward-facing service role where you get to (read: where you GET TO) deliver bad news to people or whether you’re currently vying for one of these roles, you too might be the type of person who decides to be of service. Please note the distinction – being in one of these roles doesn’t make you that type of person just by proximity. However, regardless of your reasons, the mere fact that you landed in a position that places you beside people in need suggests the first point toward this argument.

Why should you pursue the heroic ideal?

You said you would.

Now, that’s quite a bold (literally and figuratively) way to frame the first part of this call to action.

So, to support this notion – that it matters when you commit to something – let me ask you, the reader a couple questions.

  • If you say you’ll do something and flake on it, what does that say about you?

Or, let’s get a little deeper.

  • What kind of person would you be if you made a promise and didn’t follow through?

Getting there. But, like a less-than-creative ChatGPT command, let’s get even deeper.

  • If you made an oath, bound by only your word and made the conscious decision to abandon it, what would that say about your core values?

There it is.

If you said you would, your best is owed.

Part of the promise we make as duty-bound professionals is tied to our current posture. But, the pledges we repeat to be sworn into this circle are also an investment. In one way, we gesture to the mountains of work and experience we’ve accrued to be offered this position in the first place. We also offer a vow to what the people who will call upon us can expect in the future.

In Canada, there are an estimated 251000 first responders. From a population of nearly 39 million, that’s puts you in a category of people that spans 0.6% of the population.

Read that again.

If you want to serve in the capacity of emergency response in this country, you’re in a group of people that is represented by less than one percent of the total population.

When the public calls for our help, we should assume they’re expecting a one-percenter to show up.

We should anticipate this expectation in the presence of emergencies. We should also suppose the public desperately wishes that our ongoing lifestyle is a reflection of that immediate need.

Your lifestyle, therefore, should mirror the heroic ideal set upon you by the people you serve because you told them that when you signed up, you would take that on as your burden of duty. When you stepped forward, off the line of civilian normalcy, that you wanted to represent the one percent of people who can be trusted to respond.

Are you aiming high enough?

I had a conversation recently with one of our Jiu Jitsu members. They had let me know about some difficulty they were experiencing in the realm of testing environments. Despite knowing that the outcome of these tests were personally significant, they were experiencing a sort of apathy to prevent the feelings of failure from leeching into their personal expectations. Finally, I was asked how somebody might mitigate that – to push into the cavernous unknown and accept the outcomes of our adventures as vitally important; win or lose.

“Do something that scares the shit out of you.”

That was my answer. Gift and curse, fear is the arbiter of wonderful progress.

For me, that has generally translated into feats of endurance. A marathon. A really long ruck march. There, I get to abandon my physical pains and trudge through the sometimes mucky wasteland of my mental landscape. I get to re-introduce myself to the idea that the things that are under my direct control are subject to my time, effort, pace and cadence.

And, every single time, I’m really really scared.

I think that’s a marker for how I know I’m in the neighbourhood of progress.

It’s how I know I’m aiming high enough.

One way to argue for the adoption of the heroic ideal is by asking yourself if your aims are aligned with the highest possible good.

Jordan Peterson introduced me to the idea of the ‘highest possible good’ through his appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. He said that looking toward the highest possible good might be finding something that is a net positive for you. Positive for all 9 domains of your wellness. It might be something that is a net positive for you and is also good for your family in every way that something could be good for your family. The highest possible good might be something that is a net positive for you, for your family and maybe even the wider community, all at once.

Service = an iteration of the highest possible good.

I’d like to add something to Dr. Peterson’s notion.

As best I can tell, our will to serve is the root of what that highest possible good might be. Notice, I’m not talking about our ability to serve. If you get into a car accident and you’re hung up on recovery for 4 months, you might not be able to serve, but your will to pursue a reality where you can be of service will position you toward finding the best possible version of yourself.

To serve others, our own lives must land in order. Our financial, spiritual, cognitive, emotional, physical, occupational and interpersonal selves must be in line and accounted for. To fall back once again on one of Peterson’s ideas, we might not have any business trying to change the world if we can’t even keep our bedroom tidy.

Our social circles should be sorted. Our fitness regimen locked in.

The variables that could create stress for us can hinder our concentration on the emergent issues we’re called to for response. Therefore – to be of best service, we ought to aim at alignment for the first two parts of Peterson’s highest possible good. Once our lifestyle allows for focus on the external, we can finally find a good that affects our community.

The most direct way to benefit your community is with your own hands.

Money can provide resources. Leadership can organize helpers at scale.

When you compile your lifestyle in such a way that you can reliably respond to the needs of strangers – in person and in real-time and in such a way that the other aspects of your life are balanced, you’ve found the highest possible good.

What does that lifestyle look like?

Jonny Kim is an American, born in 1984. In his single human lifespan, he has served as a US Navy Seal, a practicing physician and is due, in 2024, to set foot on the moon as an astronaut.

Let me just dial that in for you a little; this guy is a warfighter who received a Silver Star for bravery in combat, a doctor from Harvard Medical School and an actual astronaut.

Oh yeah, he’s married and has three kids, too.

Kim’s life isn’t perfect. You can listen to his trials on Jocko’s podcast. Kim’s life, however, is a functional example of the heroic ideal.

The heroic ideal relies on you to believe it is attainable.

As we’ve said – this ideal is placed upon you. Your position has no authority over whether the people you serve need you to be a hero.

Let me inject a little mind virus into your day-to-day.

Every memoir you can read about every great person is written about a person just like you.

They had their victories and losses. The trials of faith. The injuries. The full-hearted hope.

Everything that you have. Nothing more.

The heroic ideal; that standard placed upon us by the people we serve, hinges on your belief that it can be attained. Were it too far out of reach, we may never even try to pursue it. If the road-bound police officer didn’t think she could stand in the arena, she may instead choose to accept mediocrity. If the firefighter whose alarm is set before the birds in his neighbourhood begin singing doesn’t believe he can produce heroic results, why answer the call?

You should want heroic output because they desperately wish you’ll put out heroic effort when they call.

I’d like to encapsulate this idea by issuing one last remark.

The heroic ideal isn’t something you can decide to conquer. It is already set about you by the people you stepped forward to serve. Whether you’re comfortable with this idea or not, there are people right now who believe your lifestyle is a reverberation of the promises you’ve made to your community.

At the very heart of this ideal, there lies one factor that is completely under your control at all times.


If the heroic ideal that exists in the imagination of our community is to be made real, it’s made real by people just like you.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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