“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” – Theodore Roosevelt
I’ve often written about how one of my great heroes growing up was my grandfather, and think it interesting to note that his hero was T.R. Roosevelt, quoted above. My grandfather liked to quote our twenty-sixth President liberally; generally regarding the idea of not being afraid of failure but to make sure that if you failed it would be because you were daring greatly, heroically, pursuing not failure but success.
Typically, heroism is idealized in the fact that heroes always succeed. In this quote’s philosophy is the lesson that failure should not be feared, but giving in to the fear of failure and not even trying is. Redefining heroism means the story of true heroes and heroines don’t stop with one successful task that is achieved, but is rather a continuing saga of trying. I became fascinated as a writer to tell stories about characters having the courage to pursue success; even and especially when others do not support those goals. Or, even more deeply, those who pursue success even when those around them might be actively committed to seeing them fail.Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill, British stateman
In my books, my characters are often people of humble beginnings who have arrived at a given point in their lives on the merits of their own grit and determination, sometimes despite the efforts of others to keep them down or to hold them back; or even their own personal limitations they started with but managed to get past. The character Reed Cooper is the product of an abusive and violent childhood, but he nevertheless manages to become a respected pilot and spacefarer. In my book, Infinity’s Queen, the father of the young warrior named Vahran tries to hold him back when he seeks to pursue his people’s manhood ritual; the father thinking his son is too young to be successful… yet the young warrior proves his father’s fears unfounded. Redefining heroism means it is not the dramatic rescue, but the enduring pursuit that matters.
As a person, as well as a writer, I am inevitably inspired by stories of people facing great odds and having to find success through their own strength and determination; which might explain why I found myself thinking about all of this recently when a woman I have known well for many years received news that her brother had been diagnosed with advanced throat cancer. I watched her battle with conflicting emotions, as she had spent years mostly estranged from her family. But, this was her brother, and I knew she couldn’t help but feel a sense of frustration and sadness about the situation. Her response to keep trying to reach out to him without success inspired me to further embrace my re-definition of heroism. It inspired me to share some of her backstory with you.
A Heroine’s Journey
Raised in rural Southwestern New Mexico, second of four siblings, she did not have an easy life. Her father was psychologically and physically abusive; a problem made worse by his eldest daughter’s high-spirited intelligence and inquisitive nature, which the family aggressively sought to squelch. When she asked even simple questions about the world around her, she would be silenced. When she expressed an interest in reading, she had books literally torn from her hands and thrown into the fireplace. The more she asserted herself the more they tried to crush her fierce spirit by telling her to “sit down and shut up and look pretty.” She was told repeatedly she was too stupid to ever succeed at anything, so she might as well not even try.
Her siblings saw her as different, too. Any effort she made to improve herself seemed to get purposefully undermined by actions intended to crush her spirit. Her sister especially took great delight in accusing her of whatever offense the sister had committed, knowing that it would earn her a beating from her father; who would hammer on her until he was literally too tired to raise his arm for another blow. At one point he even threw his eldest daughter barefoot into the snow because she was somehow “bothering” him and left her outside for over an hour. She suffers circulatory and nerve issues in her feet to this day as a result of the borderline frostbite she suffered from that incident.
The moment she was old enough, she left home and struck out on her own. She had no money and no safe place to go, but she figured that anywhere had to be better than where she was. She ended up working as a private security guard in Santa Fe and proved herself to be tough as nails when she had to be, but she also had the compassion and humor necessary to deescalate situations that might have turned out much worse if she hadn’t responded so effectively.
But, like all heroes and heroines, their path is often accompanied by mistakes and obstacles of their own making. Seeking the love and nourishment that had been missing in her youth, she instead married a controlling, manipulating person who mirrored her own family. His power was the same as her family’s: that she could never be better than she was and that she was not smart enough to be different. Her husband’s message to her for years was essentially to be a good wife who should “sit down and shut up and look pretty.”
Fortunately, she didn’t accept abuse in her marriage any more than in her family. Despite a lifetime of being told she wasn’t smart enough or intelligent enough or worthy in any way, she fought through the heartache and mental abuse to go back to school and get her college degree. The more her education progressed the more the messages she’d heard her entire life and in her marriage no longer rang true. She had the courage to divorce her husband and to appreciate that it was ok to be different from others’ expectations. In the same year she was acrimoniously divorced, I watched in amazement as she finally earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. Having known her and her situation for so long, I knew what a deep achievement it really was.
Close friends for years, I had heard snippets of stories about her family; sometimes cringe worthy, sometimes tragically comic tales that defied logic. Her grandmother once demanded, “What makes you think you have a right to be happy?” when she had left her abusive marriage. Her ex-husband was even still considered part of their family and was included in family events she was not! Able to proudly trace their heritage back to the Spanish Conquistadores of the 1600’s, her family and its titular head, her father, were determined not to learn from the errors of their ancestors’ history: her father took pleasure in terrorizing everyone, and her family was infamous in the town she grew up in; her siblings fell into alcoholism and drug addiction, each inevitably moving back home and becoming disdainful and frustrated, bitterly blaming others as is often the case with addictions.
Not an addict, not living at home, gainfully employed, and finally educated, my friend was not only different, but represented all that her family was not. She is independent, happy, kind, and brilliantly intelligent. Had she failed to embrace her own differences, even in the face of extreme oppression, she never would have learned this lesson: the courage to try to succeed beyond what is known IS the success. The truth for all of us is that heroes and heroines are always admired by others. We, the observers, root for their successes because it gives us hope, and we become uncomfortably invested in their struggles. But even if they fail in their challenges, it is the courage to try when facing those seemingly insurmountable situations that we want to identify with most. Innately, we admire people who have the courage to challenge their own limitations; be it family, self, or situation.
Courage Rewarded, Courage Embraced
We love our heroes and heroines. I am no different in that. My heart swelled with pride for my friend while she strived to succeed through the years, as she prevailed in her goals, and whenever she eventually triumphed over heavy obstacles she had to overcome while navigating the ups and downs. I felt the joy of her successes as well as the angst of her setbacks, knowing sometimes there was little I could do about them. In a lot of ways it only further illustrates to me just how special she truly is for having had the strength of character to not only reject being trapped in such a mindset, but to strive to leave it behind and create something better for herself, and – just as with the characters in the stories I’ve written - to not let herself be defined by the expectations of others. She is a modern-day heroine, full of quick mischievous wit, compassion, and kindness; combined with her strength and indomitable spirit. Perhaps she is similar to someone whom you know.
But in my case, I was incredibly fortunate that my 20-year friendship with her inevitably grew from admiration for a true heroine into love. She is Santanita Guadalupe Consuela Mirabal Winton, and it is the highest honor of my life to have been found worthy of sharing her life as her husband since 2016. Her story inspires me every day to write books with characters that face challenges and difficulties, but courageously toil to not allow themselves to be defined by the circumstances or the people who surround them. I want my readers to experience my stories and to root for my fictional heroes and heroines, feeling their angst when attacked and rejoicing in their triumphs. I also want my readers to redefine their own ideals of heroism for themselves and to look for modern-day heroes and heroines with the courage to try, the courage to be different, and the courage to stand up for themselves and who they are. Said Ezra Benson, Eisenhower's Head of the Department of Agriculture: "Great battles can make great heroes and heroines."
If you’re up for a heroic journey, join my throng of readers in one of my heroic adventures. You won’t be disappointed; but inspired. I’d love to hear about your personal heroes and heroines, too. Please post your hero & heroine stories below.
J.R. Winton was born at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, grew up in New Mexico, and is an avid outdoorsman currently living in the mountains of Northwest Montana with his wife Santanita. His blog, https://jrwinton.net/blog, highlights his insightful thoughts on life, current issues, and book topics of interest to him. Descriptions of his interstellar Wild West adventure series, The Desolation Trilogy, and his newest short story, The Gunman’s Voyage, can be found on his blog or ordered from Amazon for Kindle.