President Trump, King Canute, and the meaning of heroism

When I think about President Trump’s desire to “have the country opened up and raring to go by Easter,” I think about the legend of King Canute and the tide. The king’s courtiers tried to convince him that he was so powerful, he could command the tide to stop. When he showed that he couldn’t, he declared, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”

After more than a decade of watching superpowered superheroes, it’s a lesson about the limits of heroism we have to learn again.

Who have been the heroes of the coronavirus crisis so far? People doing their jobs. Doctors, nurses, first responders, medical researchers, supermarket employees, truck drivers, restaurant workers, and everyone else showing up at work and keeping society running. We battle this virus with seeming mundane tasks. Keeping supermarket shelves stocked, delivering restaurant meals, manufacturing N95 masks, and just washing your hands.

Heroism in this crisis can’t be done with grand gestures, or by great people doing great things. There is no superdoctor in tights and a vibranium lab coat who can use secret Kryptonian technology to whip up a miracle cure. No wizard can cast a spell to destroy the virus. Nor are there plucky teens who can outsmart it. No president can issue an executive order to stop a pandemic. It takes someone with the courage and humility of a King Canute to know that the tide cannot be stopped. You have to know how to avoid getting swept up by it.

As writers, this pandemic can inspire us to come up with a different type of hero. A hero who wins by showing up when everyone else heads for cover. Ones who sacrifice so others are safe. Ones who maintain calm and integrity when everyone else panics. Ones who show that when enemies can’t be defeated, they can be outlasted. Ones for whom persistence, dedication, and hard work are their superpowers.

As we sit at home in our state-mandated writing retreats, we can create stories that tell of this type of heroism. It will also help us find the heroism in ourselves to adapt and endure.