On Heroism

On the Real Meaning of “Heroism”

By Ken K. Gourdin

A story in today’s Salt Lake Tribune about a young man’s attempt to stage a young girl’s kidnapping and rescue so that he could be seen as a hero caught my attention. Unfortunately, the young girl died in the course of the young man carrying out the scheme he apparently hoped would bring him wide acclaim. This young man misunderstood the true nature of heroism, with tragic results. See the story at http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/world/56383228-68/dube-affidavit-nichole-facebook.html.csp, last accessed today.

In a sense, we contribute to incidents such as this (and, in my opinion, we also misunderstand the nature of heroism) in the way we often respond to those who display unusual courage in confronting single instances in which the lives and welfare of others are at risk. While I don’t mean to suggest that such courage isn’t laudable, other, less noticeable, less heralded acts of true heroism are displayed every day. Perhaps if we took more time to give such simple acts the attention and acclaim they are due, the victim of this young man’s would-be act of “heroism” would still be alive today.

Most all of those who have lost loved ones who gave their lives in single acts that others see as heroic would testify that being the friend or loved one of a hero isn’t worth the loss of the loved one’s companionship: mothers and fathers prefer the companionship of their lost sons and daughters; siblings prefer the companionship of their lost brothers and sisters; aunts and uncles prefer the companionship of their lost nieces and nephews; children of aunts and uncles prefer the companionship of their lost cousins; grandparents prefer the companionship of their lost grandchildren; and so on.

“Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends,” says the scripture. Still, even if loved ones of those who have lost their lives in heroic acts have the perspective to realize that death is only a temporary separation and that, one day, they will be reunited with their loved ones in a life beyond this one, that perspective doesn’t necessarily make such separations easier: in fact, paradoxically, the opposite may be true, because such perspective not only carries with it the promise of a reunion with lost loved ones beyond death’s door, it also makes our mortal relationships with those we have lost that much deeper and richer.

And the aftermath of a heroic act for someone who survives after performing it isn’t necessarily easier: even heroic acts with the best possible outcome can leave those who played a part in them with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and with other psychological and emotional scars. And if someone is able to save the lives of some but not of others through an act of heroism, often, he is prone to think less of those he saved than of who perished despite his efforts.

I’m reminded of the movie The Guardian, in which Jake Fischer, a young Coast Guard rescue swimmer in training played by Ashton Kutcher, asks his trainer Ben Randall, played by Kevin Costner, who is considered a legend for all of his daring-but-successful rescues, “What’s your number?”—meaning, “How many people’s lives have you saved in your career?” After dodging the question for most of the movie, Randall finally tells Fischer his number: “Twenty-two,” he says. Expecting to hear a much higher number, Fischer is taken aback—before Randall finally levels with him, telling him that twenty-two is not the number of people he saved; indeed, that number, given Randall’s long career, would be much higher, just as Fischer expected it to be. Rather, twenty-two is the number of people Randall lost, the only number that matters to him.

We tend to elevate those who have performed heroic acts; we tend to place them on a pedestal. We tend to believe that because they have accomplished such extraordinary things, they must be composed of rare fiber—of substances not often found in more “ordinary” folks. In fact, the truth is that most of them are more-or-less ordinary folks who simply rose to the occasion when confronted with out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. When we hear of what they’ve accomplished, we say, “Oh, I could never do that!” But the truth is, we don’t know what we would (or could) do until confronted with similar circumstances.

Most of the people we laud as “heroes” say, “Oh, I just did what had to be done,” or “I just did what anyone would have done.” While we often accuse people who utter such protestations of simply displaying false modesty, perhaps such protestations are closer to the truth than we realize: no one thinks to himself, in the heat of the moment when he is faced with the prospect of performing an extraordinary act to preserve the lives and welfare of others, “I’ll be a hero!” The designation of the act as “heroic” and of the person who performed it as a “hero” takes place only after the fact, and is done, not by the person himself, but rather by third parties (or by “second parties,” those whose lives and welfare were preserved). When it comes to heroism, it’s not the man who makes the occasion; rather, it’s the occasion that makes the man (or woman).

Could (and would) many major airline pilots, such as Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who landed an airliner in New York City’s Hudson River after losing both engines to bird strikes, do something similar if necessary? More than a few could and would. Could (and would) many police officers and firefighters respond to a major disaster the way members of NYPD and FDNY responded on September 11, 2001? More than a few could and would. Could (and would) many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who will never win a Medal of Honor respond as a Medal of Honor winner has responded in dire circumstances? More than a few could and would (indeed, they do). And the same could be said of many people in various high-pressure, high-risk occupations.

The family members of people in those occupations make countless small sacrifices in support of their loved ones every day. While I never felt “cheated” as a member of a law enforcement family growing up, I had more than a few family dinners, family gatherings, holidays, and other special occasions interrupted, pre-empted, or postponed when duty called my dad away. While few. if any, family members would call themselves heroic for accepting such sacrifices simply as the price to be be paid in order to support loved ones as they do their jobs, their loved ones couldn’t do such jobs without that support.

Being human, heroes often are flawed—not just in literature, but in real life, as well. Among those who responded to the 2007 shooting of several patrons at Trolley Square, a Salt Lake City mall, was an off-duty (now former) Ogden police officer, Ken Hammond. Hammond was credited with facilitating an effective police response to the shooting and with saving lives by distracting shooter Suleijman Talovic. While he originally was hailed as a hero, Hammond later resigned from the force in disgrace after pleading no contest to sexual battery on a 17-year-old girl. Without question, no amount of heroism could justify or excuse Hammond’s misconduct. And while none of us is perfect, few of us have engaged in such serious wrongdoing. Still, none of us is a total sinner or a total saint: most of us are some combination of the two, and the same is true of those we laud as heroes.

The notion that one’s private behavior can impact the level of public trust one deserves is considered by many to be old-fashioned and passé. Those who hold this view maintain that what an officer does in his off-duty hours is no one else’s business. The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics which Hammond took, however, disagrees. That Code encourages its adherents not only to keep their public lives unsullied, but also to keep their private lives unsullied “as an example to all.” Sadly, we’re quickly losing sight of that ideal—in law enforcement, in many other professions, and in life in general. The poem “Myself” by Edgar A. Guest pays homage to that ideal. Its theme is that one cannot be one sort of person in public and another sort of person in private. One line says, “I have to live with myself, and so, I want to be fit for myself to know.” Philosopher Henry David Thoreau expressed a similar idea when he said, “What you are stands over you all the while, and thunders so loudly that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”

As laudable as Hammond’s acts were on that fateful night in 2007, I have more respect for those who uphold the ethics of his profession, quietly and without fanfare, than I ever will for him. Heroism, in its truest and purest form, is displayed, not only by officers who successfully confront “active shooter” (and similar) situations: it is displayed by those who, although confronted daily with instances of disrespect by the public they serve, maintain “courageous calm,” not only in the face of danger (as the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics says), but also in the face of derision, scorn, and ridicule, and who have the courage and decency to avoid responding in kind. Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank demonstrated these characteristics when a frustrated family member of Destiny Norton (who, sadly, later was found to have been murdered) spit in his face at a press conference.  Chief Burbank, perhaps sensing his assaulter’s understandable frustration despite such inexcusable behavior, didn’t miss a beat.  He refused even to acknowledge the slight and simply kept on talking.

Some have put forward the idea that “heroes” sometimes are even mere unwilling “victims” of circumstance. I’m reminded of the episode of the television series M*A*S*H in which the camp is under siege by a sniper, and Hawkeye determines to seek the sniper out. When Major Burns expresses reluctance, opining that he has too much to lose to risk getting hurt or killed, Hawkeye asks him, “You want to know what a hero is, Frank? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a hero is somebody who’s tired enough, and cold enough, and hungry enough not to give a damn. I don’t give a damn.”

Contrary to the examples of Ken Hammond and Hawkeye Pierce, most often, heroism isn’t displayed in the course of making a single large sacrifice or exhibiting extraordinary courage (or being driven by extreme cold, hunger, or fatigue) on a single occasion. Instead, it’s displayed in the course of making a thousand smaller sacrifices, the vast majority of which go unnoticed and unheralded: the nurse who comforts a suffering or dying patient; the teacher or tutor who spends extra time with a student who otherwise would lag behind his classmates; the man who visits an elderly neighbor and shovels snow off of the walk or mows the lawn; the woman who visits that same neighbor and helps tidy the house. Heroism in its truest, purest, most common form is displayed quietly and without fanfare by countless individuals who perform countless small acts of such simple kindness every day.

While, to the best of my knowledge, my father never faced an on-duty situation in which he was under fire during his long career, he’s more of a hero to me than Ken Hammond will ever be.  I was a police Explorer Scout for more than two years, and frequently accompanied my dad on routine patrol.  Once, we responded to an auto-pedestrian accident with injuries in which a young man was hit by a car while crossing the street on his bicycle.  Officers diverted traffic, secured the scene, and conducted an initial assessment of this boy’s condition.  While he likely had some serious internal injuries, he was breathing and his heart was beating.  I watched from the passenger seat of my dad’s cruiser as a bunch of cops stood around awkwardly, having done all they felt they could do before the ambulance arrived. Dad got down on his hands and knees amidst the car’s mangled front end, the mangled bicycle lying in the street, and pieces of shattered glass and plastic strewn everywhere.  I imagined that he was trying to conduct a further assessment of the boy’s condition, such as asking him (of all the places he likely hurt) where he hurt the most.  But when I asked Dad about their conversation (such as it was; it was probably pretty one-sided) when he got back into the car, he said, “Oh, I was just trying to comfort him.”

I’m also reminded of the movie October Sky, which tells the story of how then-NASA engineer-to-be Homer Hickham, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, was inspired to take the career path he did, as he and his classmates win First Prize at a science fair for their successful rocket design. Homer, desperate to find a way to avoid following in his father’s footsteps in the West Virginia coal mines, sets his sights higher—both literally and figuratively.

Homer’s aspirations lead to conflict between Homer and his father, John, played by Chris Cooper, who believes that Homer looks down on him because he makes his living at manual labor. After the successful launch, without realizing it, Homer is congratulated by Dr. Werner Von Braun, a pioneer in rocket design and a major early contributor to the U.S. space program, whom he greatly admires. “Heard you met your big hero and didn’t even know it,” Homer’s dad later tells him. It is implied that the rift between the two is mended when Homer replies, “Dr. Von Braun is a great scientist, but he isn’t my hero.”

And what of those who routinely confront circumstances we think are extraordinary on an everyday basis? As a person with a disability, arguably, I qualify for this category. I have Cerebral Palsy; I walk with a pair of forearm crutches, or with a noticeable limp without them. I recently returned from a ten-day trip to Spain, during which I, along with the other members of a tour group which numbered about fifty, did a considerable amount of walking. More than a few members of the group marveled at my perseverance, asking me in amazement, “How do you do it?” I responded, “The same way you do: I simply keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

I received my Associate degree from Dixie College (now Dixie State University) in 1993. By vote of the student body, Dixie presents an annual Achievement of the Year Award to a student who has successfully met unusual challenges in receiving a higher education. I was nominated for the award in 1991, and I was a co-recipient in 1992. I responded to my first nomination by then-Dixie College Dean of Students Bill Fowler in a letter which read, in part, as follows:

There may be many challenges involved for we who are handicapped in being successful in life, but that’s not the way most of us look at it. I don’t wake up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and say, “I’m going to inspire the world today!” Non-handicapped people look at us and marvel at the challenges we so “courageously” face only because they’re not handicapped. If they were handicapped, they would realize that we don’t seek to overcome those challenges because we want to be “exceptional”; we seek to overcome those challenges because we want to be “normal,” and I’ve never met anyone who’s gotten an award for being “normal.”

Being “normal” has nothing to do with not being handicapped. Instead, we who are handicapped want others to look at us and realize that inside these imperfect bodies are whole—“normal”—people. We don’t want life to give us special terms just because we’re handicapped. We want to play and win the game of life on the same terms as anyone else. And since the game of life is a team effort, maybe we can play the game—and share the victories—together. If we have to work harder than most to achieve those victories, we need not be pitied for that, because it will make those victories far, far sweeter.[1]

In the end, anyone who would be a hero should ask himself not, “What cause would I be willing to die for?” Instead, he should ask himself, “What cause would I be willing to live for?” True heroes give their lives for such causes, not in single acts of extraordinary bravery, but rather in small, simple, everyday acts of quiet service and kindness.

[1] Excerpt from correspondence, Ken K. Gourdin to then-Dixie College Dean of Students Bill Fowler, April 18, 1991, as reprinted in Ken K. Gourdin (2003) My Story: Lots of Good, Some Bad, and a Little Ugly in the First 32 Years, Collierville, Tenn.: Instantpublisher.com 156-157.

About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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1 Response to On Heroism

  1. Pingback: More pilots like Sully | Commentary on the passing scene

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