Volodymyr Zelensky at the Bridge: The Costly Virtue of Heroism in the Real World

Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.In December of 2018, I wrote these words in an article about It’s a Wonderful Life for Christ and Pop Culture: “If we’re not willing to give of ourselves for the communities in which God has placed us, what will be the cost of the absence of our virtue?” The article compared a fictional character, George Bailey, to the legendary Roman hero Horatius who held a bridge into Rome alone against a horde of invaders. I never imagined the next few years would provide an opportunity for me to reflect back on what I had to say about heroes and costly virtue during a time of war. I expect there will be many portraits, pictures, and statues of Zelensky around the world in the years to come. That’s what happens when a person stands up to a tyrant—stands up to defend freedom against oppression.In that article, “George Bailey at the Bridge,” I argued that the lesson we learn from both Bailey and Horatius is that one person could stand in the gap for their community in profound, world-altering ways. Watching Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, stay and fight on the ground with his soldiers at what may end up costing his life has reminded me that the ideas for such heroic virtue in the stories we tell have always been seeded in real life, in real conflicts, in the real devastations and triumphs of people who rise to face incredible odds during often indescribable circumstances. We don’t have any stories of heroes without heroes in real life. Maybe that sounds too simplistic, but it’s captured me in a rather profound way this week as people around the world have united in an outpouring of support for not just the people and soldiers of Ukraine broadly but more specifically in the figure of one man: Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky is an unlikely president, let alone one who would step up to be a hero in wartime—but that is just what identifies him as such. He plays more like the scripted hero of a Netflix special. He’s young (for a world leader) at just forty-four years old, married with two small children, and a former actor/comedian and dancer. He was the voice of Ukraine’s Paddington Bear, he won Dancing with the Stars in Ukraine in 2006, and after he starred in a TV series about an idealistic school teacher who got elected President of Ukraine, he left acting to form his own political party and run for office. And that’s how Zelensky became President of Ukraine. In other words, he’s an unlikely success story and undoubtedly a likable, talented guy, but before this week I don’t think anyone could have predicted him as the sort of man who would stand up to the brutal dictator of the largest nuclear power in the world. But he is doing just that, and he’s rallying more than just his people around him. He’s rallying the free world. It’s not only that this is a David vs. Goliath moment, or even that we’re shocked to see war return to Europe. Although both of these things are true and truly contribute to our ideas of who Volodymyr Zelensky is. But the unlikely war-time president of Ukraine has captured the heart of the world for one particular reason: he is what a hero should be, and we are overwhelmed to find that a man like him lives and breathes in the real world today. He’s like someone who has stepped out of a storybook or off a movie screen. We love him for his goodness, bravery, and self-sacrifice. And he causes us all to feel—maybe more than anything else—solidarity with the Ukrainians in their plight. Zelensky reminds us that we recognize heroes not because of some intrinsic goodness within ourselves, but because they resonate with a goodness that transcends us—a goodness that calls us to set aside our sinful nature for the good of others. We are, it turns out, desperately starved for heroism. Real heroism, the sort we try to capture in our stories. The sort we recognize with an almost unanimous voice and spirit when we see it because we’ve spent so much time imitating it with shadows on the wall. I say almost unanimous because there are those who haven’t been able to distinguish right from wrong this week. Who’ve maligned goodness for attention or personal gain. I won’t name names or post any links, as we’ve all seen some examples of what I’m talking about, and I don’t want to amplify foolishness any more than it already has been. I would be happy to ignore such behavior entirely, but I think it’s worth mentioning because the people who cannot look at the Ukrainians and say, “These are the victims—these are the heroes!” are suffering not just from a corrupt sense of morality, but also from tragically impoverished imaginations. Is it not obvious who the good guys are? It should be, for those whose imaginations have been properly aligned to true north. But an impoverished imagination obscures the call to transcendent goodness. It turns a person’s sight inward to selfish ambition. The character Faramir, one of the truest heroes in The Lord of the Rings, rejects the Ring of Power when it falls into his grasp. Showing his character as a man of honor and not one of twisted, selfish ambitions, Faramir speaks of warfare like this: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Faramir evokes the heroism we’re seeing on display today, and it’s a reminder that author J. R. R. Tolkien fought in and was inexorably influenced by the horrors of World War I. Storytellers have always made heroes out of light and words and shadows, out of pixelations on a computer screen and cleverly crafted words to try and evoke some sense of the sorts of things that play out in real life. The work of play-acting at heroism is good, because it’s a play-acting at understanding what might otherwise seem nonsensical to us. The stories we tell of heroes like Faramir explain not only why we love a man like Zelensky when he steps reluctantly onto the world stage, but also why he behaves the way he does at a time of great need. Zelensky is a husband and father. Why won’t he leave Kyiv and save himself? He’s the president, and self-preservation would be not only justified, but understandable. And surely he wants to see his children grow to adulthood. But the man chooses to stay, fighting amongst his soldiers and delivering selfie-style reports from the ground of the capital itself. He does not love the “bright sword for its sharpness… only that which [it defends].” To call Zelensky inspirational is an understatement. He has become synonymous with the Roman virtus I referenced in “George Bailey at the Bridge”: a civic virtue demanding greatness, valor, and courage. And self-sacrifice. And that is why I sincerely doubt Volodymyr Zelensky will get the wish he made at his 2019 inauguration: “I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.” He’s right—the president of a democratic society is not an icon or an idol—neither is he or she a hero. And that makes his sentiments here not only true, but admirable. But I expect there will be many portraits, pictures, and statues of Zelensky around the world in years to come. That’s what happens when a person stands up to a tyrant—stands up to defend freedom against oppression. Many things will be remembered about Zelensky from the current war. But eventually memory will bleed into the history books, and then history will fade into legend. Someday people may question whether the stories are true, and if he really said things like, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride” to America’s offer to evacuate him from Kyiv. Or to the Russians, “As you attack, it will be our faces you see, not our backs.” We don’t know what will happen to his words, but the lives he will help to save will be incalculable. In another famous underdog story of a superpower invasion of a smaller state, when the massive Persian army advanced on the tiny contingent of Spartans at the Thermopylae gate, the Persian emperor Xerxes’ emissary told the Spartan king Leonidas’ lieutenant, “Our arrows will blot out the sun.” Leonidas’ lieutenant gamefully replied, “Then we shall have our battle in the shade.” We don’t know if these words were actually spoken any more than we know whether or not Horatius lived and bravely defended the bridge in Rome. But they inspire us still. This week has reminded us that there are men, and women, who are alive in this unjust world who are willing to stand up in the face of great evil and say, “You shall not pass”—even if it means their lives. Costly heroism demands a willingness for no less. And the stories we tell, old and new, provide us with a framing for our moral imagination of what heroism is. Who is Volodymyr Zelensky? He is a hero, of course. He stands at the bridge—he stands at the gate, for his family, for his home, for Ukraine. And in this war, we are all Ukrainians now.