With the luxury of time to look back on the value that resulted, we endow our heroes with all manner of mystic qualities, such that our heroes, hearing themselves described as such, often don't recognize themselves.
Heroism is often not something you can plan or save up for. The need for it may come upon you suddenly. It must be done in the moment, which is often part of the sacrifice. If you knew the need was coming, you might have scheduled other events differently. The event may be something they were prepared to do, but the timing of the event may not have been.
A firefighter may be prepared to lose his life in a fire for another, but he doesn't get to choose a good day for it to happen. Every day could be that day, and yet the day it happens is never a good one. It may be the day he's had a fight with someone and wishes he hadn't, or it may be the week before that big trip he was going to take with a loved one.
It is rarely something where you get a second chance. Usually what you do is what you do. It is therefore messy, unfinished, not particularly artistic, “done in a single take.” And in the time just afterward, while everyone is singing their praises, our hero, if lucky enough to have survived at all, is probably lost in self-critical thoughts of “I should have somehow done it differently, better,” as if that were really an option.
The messiness of heroism is illustrated in the brilliant movie 1776, where the spotlight falls at one point on the awful dilemma of patriots committed to opposing slavery being told in a high-stakes game of intellectual poker that the new nation would have slavery at its core or there would be no new nation to later rise above slavery. Who would want to be the kind of hero who said yes to that deal? Bad enough you had risked your life daily just for the right to participate in a process you'd hoped would free all men, but in the end you realize your opposition to slavery will likely be forgotten by history and you'll be remembered instead for having enshrined it. For some of those men, signing their names to the Declaration of Independence on those terms must have been the kind of awful compromise faced by a doctor who saws off a man's leg to save him from death. Messy, but something one sometimes has as one's only choice. Our heroes sometimes make these choices just so we won't have to, accepting a shame upon themselves so that others will not have to.
George Bush was not able to muster what it took to be the messy kind of hero. In the final days of his Presidency, when the economy was a mess, due in part to a war that should never have been fought, he could have made a useful sacrifice and drawn fire upon himself by taking responsibility and admitting it was his fault. Even if he didn't believe it, he could have said he did. That would have freed his whole party to move forward without pointing fingers at one another. But he couldn't do it, and so he condemned many to endure continued finger-pointing. The kind of heroism he wanted was the clean, pretty, photo-op kind of heroism of a scheduled landing in a pristine jumpsuit on a military-looking set that sat well out of harm's way.
Barack Obama, by contrast, was a hero when he apologized on behalf of the US for the economic mess that we as a nation pulled the world into. He didn't cause the problem, but he didn't make a big point of that. He had no reason to expect the world to applaud him for what he said. It wasn't completely true, but it was enough true, and saying it was just the right thing to do. He must surely have known that the Republicans would say he had somehow sold us out. But he took with grace the slings and arrows that followed.
Some heroism is big and public, while some is small and private. Some happens in an instant, perhaps under active gunfire, while some is the product of relentless small acts over time, like the aforementioned founding of our nation or the unheralded endurance of a parent raising a child.
My wife is such a private hero. I won't detail why here. The details probably matter, but saying them out loud will only arm her with ways to dismiss the accolade. Like the enigmatic referent in Carly Simon's famous song, but without all the unattractive vanity, she'll have to just know that if she can think up something about which she wants to say “but that was nothing,” the very fact that she knows what to disclaim is proof that she knows she did something worthy. And, anyway, I'll always know.
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Author's Note: Originally published April 30, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.
Tags (from Open Salon): barack obama, bush, firefighters, firemen, first responders, founding fathers, george bush, george w bush, heroism, mothers, obama, police, policemen, politics, sacrifice, slavery, social, society, thank you, thankless, thanks, wives