There has been a great deal of talk of late regarding what constitutes a hero. The concept of bravery is especially relevant for me because today I will begin physical therapy for my knee. I wouldn’t be particularly worried if I hadn’t let my imagination run wild. The doctor, the nurse, and several websites have described the rehabilitation process as being “aggressive” and have instructed me to take some pain medication before my scheduled appointment. I find myself wondering what they might possibly do to my somewhat fragile limb that would necessitate narcotics and my instinct is to take flight due to my fright. On the whole I prefer enduring any painful situation under the influence of sedation. When it comes to aches and sharp twinges I am admittedly a bonafide coward but nobody would ever know it because I refuse to act the part. Instead I have always been known as someone who can take more than a fare share of hurt. I simply refuse to allow anyone to see that inside I am often a bowl of mush.
I suspect that most people are like me. We humans generally put on a good face and learn to deal with the situations that come our way. We may be big balls of anxiety in the dark of night but we manage to gird our loins when the sun rises. In a sense there are acts of heroism taking place all around us on a daily basis but we sometimes don’t notice them because our definition of a hero is more elegant and exciting than reality. The truth is that even a tiny child has the capacity to be remarkably brave.
I attended Catholic school all the way from first grade through my senior year. We had slightly different textbooks than our peers in public school, particularly when it came to history. Our volumes included stories of saints, missionaries, and martyrs along with the usual fare. I vividly recall reading about a Jesuit priest who became a captive of the Iroquois Indians somewhere in what would now be Canada. He was brutally tortured and the descriptions of the battering that he endured were probably a bit too realistic for someone in the fifth grade. When the story spoke of his fingernails and teeth being pulled out one by one I thought that I was going to vomit. The author told of these horrors supposedly so that we might fully understand the priest’s dedication to his God and his determination to keep the faith even under extreme duress.
As I have grown older I think back on that missionary and find myself wondering if perhaps he might have been wrong in forcing himself on a group of people who already possessed their own beliefs and traditions. Maybe, just maybe he was making erroneous assumptions about the native people that he encountered and they called him on it. Nonetheless, I have to admit that he was a kind of hero. I believe that he may have been intrusive but that his intentions were above board. He was willing to bear the pain and suffering and consequences of his convictions.
In today’s world I see heroes great and small. They are all good people who take on life with great courage. There is little Holden who literally spent the first years of his life at Texas Children’s Hospital battling cancer. He did so quite nobly but then the members of his families were heroic as well, as were the doctors and nurses and technicians who worked with him and supported him month after month, year after year. You will probably never read about any of them but without a doubt they are all quite amazing people who demonstrated grit and optimism in the face of a horrifying reality.
I have witnessed youngsters willing to stand tall and face down bullies when everyone else was afraid. It was often surprising to me to see which students were courageous risk takers in the battle against domineering classmates. I suppose that I will never forget one young lady who stood in front of her entire class urging them to be moral and ethical. There had been a cheating scandal and most of the students had closed ranks and to protect their friends. This one very tiny and soft spoken girl stepped forward with tears running down her face and urged the perpetrators and their accomplices to demonstrate some character. She understood that she was risking ostracism from the group in what she did but even the thought of becoming an outcast did not sway her from doing the right thing. She became my hero on that day and I continue to admire her as she has developed into an amazing woman. I doubt seriously that I would have had the spunk to do what she did when I was her age. It was incredible and humbling to watch her take on the entire crowd.
Heroes are often thrust into situations not of their own making. The ebb and flow of life places them in situations where their moral cores are revealed. Often only those intimately familiar with them even know about their laudable actions. Sometimes what they do is simply taken for granted because it seems so very ordinary. The parent who works overtime to keep a roof over the family and food on the table is the kind of hero that few would even notice. The neighbor who quietly watches over the people on the block might never receive the gratitude that he/she deserves. The teacher who spends her own limited funds to fill her classroom with supplies to help her students to succeed doesn’t usually draw attention to her generosity. The mother who stays up all night long caring for a feverish child only appears to be special to her family.
Heroism is not always glorious or without critics. When John McCain volunteered his service to the United States during the Vietnam War there were many who believed that what he was doing was actually very wrong. Critics of that conflict often spat on the soldiers who fought there. The country was angrily divided over a war that seemed to make little sense. Countless young men were drafted and forced to travel far from home to fight for a cause that was not nearly as clearly defined as World War II had been. Nevertheless, for John McCain duty to military service was a family tradition that he willingly followed.
McCain had flown twenty three missions over North Vietnam when his plane was torn from the sky by a missile that sheared off the right wing of his plane. His broken body landed near the banks of a river where the North Vietnamese were waiting for him. They broke his arm and slammed their weapons into his face and his stomach. Doctors who later worked on him thought that he would not survive his multiple injuries. Surely, they believed that he would never walk again. Somehow he did and for three long years he languished in a prison camp where he and his fellow inmates underwent torture and inhumane physical and psychological treatment. When he was finally free he was a changed man with scars that would haunt him for the rest of his days. He was a hero by anyone’s standards, regardless of whether or not they believed in the cause for which he had fought.
Heroism is always noble. It is defined by goodness. Sometimes it involves speaking up for what is right and just. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King were heroes. Their messages were about equality and freedom for all people. Blowhards with ugly ideas are not heroes. George Wallace voiced the frustrations of a certain group of people but his words were mean and shameful. Like Wallace of old, Donald Trump has recently tapped into the fears and dark sides of humanity and has roared like a bully in a play yard. There is nothing brave about his ridiculous remarks and he is so far from being a hero that it seems stunning that there is even one person who sees him in such a light. It is a truly sad day in America when men like him have followers of any number. Each of us can become heroes by calling him out and reminding him that we Americans don’t take kindly to spoiled wealthy blowhards. We can stop him now if we refuse to provide him with an audience for his venomous commentaries. The real heroes are those who stand up to such monsters. Ironically it once again seems to be John McCain who is willing to put his entire reputation on the line by voicing his legitimate concerns about Donald Trump and his minions. I suppose that heroic characteristics never really go away.
The heroes among us have set societies aright again and again. History is replete with their stories but it is in reality the everyday courage of unsung millions that makes our world a better place to live and happily they are everywhere.