From the California Wildfires to the Afghanistan Airlift to the Covid Frontline, Real Heroics Every Day
As natural and human-made disasters proliferate, we’re being reminded that when things turn bleak we easily can recognize the heroics that so often actually mark daily life.
At the same time, doing so brings into focus the weird attempts to undercut the heroes whether through adverse policies or the need to politicize the good works of others for personal gain.
- Marines pulling Afghan adults and infants over that airport wall as terrorists lurk
- Nurses hanging back in hurricane-force, howling winds to care for newborns
- Fire crews making a stand around South Lake Tahoe. My own children and grandchildren may lose their home
They all deserve substantial communal thanks, recognition and heartfelt support.
Less heralded are:
- Nervous, but resolved patients facing biopsies
- The worker willing to tell the boss that there is something wrong in the workplace
- A kid who changed gender picking a high school bathroom
- The teacher walking into a room full of students allowed to be unmasked in a time of rising Covid cases just because a governor needs to make political points
- The undocumented scratching out a living under constant legal threat
- The cop who wades daily into uncertain, often dangerous situations
It may reflect the human condition that we need awful, dicey disasters to remind us of our humility and of our need to step up and offer help to others.
After all, something internal pushes some of us to jump into the subway to save a person from an oncoming train while others look or run away.
People who risk their lives in the service of others are naturally more likely to take greater risks. They also possess a great deal of compassion, kindness, empathy and altruism, studies suggest.
That’s why it seems so loathsome to hear of the efforts in Florida and Texas to issue orders that not only don’t recognize these kinds of heroics but actively seek to block them in the name of a perverted view of individual freedom.
On Monday, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, flouted court orders and punished Alachua and Broward counties which went ahead with mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s order.
DeSantis is withholding funds from school districts. The Biden administration already has promised to make good on any such withholding of funds. And the Education Department has started investigations into five states, including Florida, moving against mask mandates in the name of civil-rights enforcement.
My issue is not who has the legal right here – for myself, DeSantis should face arrest for violating a court order. Rather, it is the active opposition to personal heroics of educators and school staff seeking to protect student and teacher health.
For the last week, we’ve been hearing as much about the failures of America to rescue everyone who wants out of Afghanistan as we have about the courage of those military and diplomatic corps who stood on that airport wall to look people in the face, unsuccessfully once as it turned out, to determine who might be carrying a bomb. There is always time later to determine the proper mission and strategy for Afghanistan without shorting the plaudits for those who asked no questions before cradling an Afghan infant or stood firm in the face of danger.
As a friend noted, the end of America’s longest war might look a whole lot different if you’re looking at that question from the point of view of a Native American.
Meanwhile, in California, my kids could watch with incredulity and resign from afar the video from remote computer cameras they set up to watch for bears. Instead of natural beauty, they saw fire crews bulldozing their backyard to prepare as oncoming, fiercely wind-borne flames of the Caldor fire that are bearing down on their entire town. What the fire crews are doing in the face of broiling heat and unbreathable air is strictly heroic. What we don’t need are Donald Trump and local knockoffs saying that 20 years of dryness could be overcome by raking forests.
Regarding the Gulf Coast, I’m waiting for the inevitable suggestions that Team Biden somehow did not properly anticipate Hurricane Ida that developed too rapidly into a dangerous storm. The heroics here are from official and neighbor rescue teams, medical personnel and the quiet work at the emergency management administrations to have learned lessons from the past and pre-positioned recovery workers from multiple states.
What is Heroism?
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo of Stanford, who studies personal heroism, says that when we ask why people become heroic, research doesn’t yet have an answer. “It could be that heroes have more compassion or empathy; maybe there’s a hero gene; maybe it’s because of their levels of oxytocin,” a kind of love gene.
“I believe that heroism is different than altruism and compassion,” he has published.
As we understand it, what we recognize as heroism is performed in service to others in need or in defense of certain ideals, is voluntary, recognizes possible risks and costs to personal health or reputation and is done without external gain anticipated at the time of the act.
“Simply put, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.”
We recognize it in the flood of disasters we are undergoing simultaneously, but less often in stoic resolve to deal with disease or hunger or living with racism.
On the other hand, we have people presenting themselves as heroic who put others at risk, including those who consistently refuse mandatory evacuation orders in a hurricane and then await rescue from rooftops.
Or now, those who refuse vaccination or masks, but then expect full employment, restaurant admission and hospital services when they fall sick.
That’s not heroism as we understand it; that’s stubborn selfishness. What kind of heroics is attacking school board members, threatening principals or ripping a mask from the face of a teacher, all part of the continuing rise of anti-authority behavior we’re clocking daily?
Zimbardo, who has written on the cross between evil-doing and heroics, wants us to become more habitual about calling on our inner strengths for the good of others. That sounds ideal if only we would agree on what exactly helps our community: In the case of coronavirus, public health is being pitted against democratic choice generally by anti-vaxxers who don’t agree with Choice in many other aspects, including gender, abortion, dress, and culture.
That kind of choice – choosing to fight for your life even in the face of bad medical findings, for example – takes a certain personal heroism. We ought to be celebrating that everyday heroism a whole lot more.