Heroes

A hero is someone who makes you proud to belong to the same species.

If a group of aliens from the Thothian galaxy were to come here, looking for a new planet to colonize after sterilizing it of all contaminating life forms, and ask you why they shouldn't sterilize Earth, what defense would you give? It would be unwise to claim our value to the universe on the basis of our accomplishments in science or the arts. It would be foolish to point to our rock idols or movie stars. But you might well say, "Ours is the species that produced...."

Ulysses Grant, for whom death—a painful one by throat cancer—came at an awkward moment. He had been duped by a business partner, a swindler who left him and many others penniless. Then Grant was diagnosed with cancer and death announced his intention to pay a call. Well, death would just have to wait; the general was busy. Mark Twain agreed to publish Grant's memoirs, so as to provide for his family after his death, and Grant began writing furiously. After a year of unimaginable pain, Grant finished his memoir, added a page or two for the editor, and finally informed death that the general would see him now.

Chiune Sugihara, who, while he was the Japanese Consul in Kaunas, Lithunania in 1940, saved the lives of over 6,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, by disobeying the orders of his government and granting them visas to Japan. When asked later why he did it. he said that these refugees were human beings and that they simply needed help. As he foresaw, his good deed did not go unpunished; he was dismissed from the Japanese diplomatic service in 1945 and spent the rest of his life in poverty. He lived just long enough to be honored by the state of Israel but all other tributes were posthumous.

Private Ingram C. Lambert, who was trapped with the rest of C Company by barbed wire on Omaha Beach during D—Day. After fifteen minutes while no one did anything or gave any orders, Lambert decided to do something on his own. He picked up a Bangalore torpedo, jumped over a wall, crossed a road to the barbed wire, and tried set off the torpedo. It failed to ignite and he was killed by machine gun fire seconds later. But his action inspired a platoon leader to follow and ignite the torpedo, thus freeing the company to advance.

The 3,460 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who showed conspicuous heroism in the course of protecting or saving the lives of their comrades.

And a vast horde of other heroes, many of them nameless in the chronicles of history, or simply unknown [1].

In all of these cases, the potential hero had to overcome fear, or that peculiar mixture of pride, avarice, and fear that we call selfishness. Courage is the conquest of fear by an overriding concern for others.

Some have earned the title of hero undeservedly because they did not have the foresight or imagination to be afraid. Others, called "cowards" by the world, might better be thought of as near—heroes because their overactive imaginations painted pictures they eventually could not withstand. In such cases, heroism is a question of how long they endured before being (as engineers say)  'tested to destruction'. Many a man has died burdened with the guilt of cowardice who was greeted triumphantly in Heaven because he had desperately held out for as long as he could. We must not try to second guess God in separating the heroes from the cowards, for, as MacKeller says in Stevenson's Master of Ballantrae, "He who will judge the issue of our lives created us in our infirmity". And sometimes infirmity itself can be an invitation to heroism [2].

But heroism doesn't just happen; it has to be learned gradually, by carrying out the ordinary tasks and duties of each day. (This is called 'responsibility' and is the raw material from which heroism is shaped.)

Each of us has at some time fought silent battles in bed at 3 am that only we and God remember, or has doggedly kept on at a wearying thankless chore that would do us no good but would make someone else a bit happier or the world a bit better.

The monotonous life of a family man, struggling week after week to stay one paycheck ahead of eviction, or of a mother, tumbling exhausted into bed every night only to be awakened by a baby's cries, can be a world—class training school for heroes. And its graduates don't even realize what they have become until an unexpected occasion arises.

And so, on this day, we commemorate some of those graduates—the heroes of 9—11:

  •  the passengers of United 93, who rose from confusion and timidity to decision and action and thereby saved the nation's Capitol;

  •  passengers on the other flights, bewildered by what was happening to them, who found themselves flying into the towers or the Pentagon and endured their horrific end with a courage and resignation we can only guess at;

  •  the people in the towers, such as security men [3], who gave their lives to help others escape;

  •  the hundreds of New York City firemen and police who died doing their jobs;

  •  the soldiers who enlisted to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq to prevent another 9/11 [4];
  •  and the families of all of the above.

    I was tempted at this point to end by quoting the last sentence of the Gettysburg address. But the words a poet spoke for the dead heroes of a similar time of crisis are much more appropriate:

    "Take up our quarrel with the foe:

    To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch, be yours to hold it high.

    If you break faith with us who die

    We shall not sleep..."

    Our task is now to strive to be worthy of our heroes

    Notes:

    [1]  Slate once published a list of the top sixty charitable donors of 1996. The editor, Jodie T. Allen, noted sadly that "most of the Slate 60 have chosen to endow institutes, centers, faculty residences, and academic chairs...rather than the poor and helpless, but there were  two $1,000,000 exceptions, both anonymous. One was...the transfer  (via a plain white envelope with no return address) to St. Jude's Children's Hospital of a winning McDonald's lottery ticket."

    [2] Jane Hess Merchant  was confined to her bed at age twelve by congenital bone disease, became deaf by age twenty—three, and had to wear thick glasses to see.. Rather than wallow in self—pity, she used what life she had to write more than 3,000 joyous and whimsical poems.

    [3] The stories of Douglas Karpiloff, John O'Neil, and Esmrtlin Salcedo  are particularly moving. But there were many others, some of whose stories are still unknown.

    [4] The  National Museum of American History's recent exhibition "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" quoted one soldier in Iraq as saying, "Somebody had to do it, and you couldn't just keep expecting the other guy to do it." He probably never heard of Private Lambert but he was cast from the same mold.

  • A hero is someone who makes you proud to belong to the same species.

    If a group of aliens from the Thothian galaxy were to come here, looking for a new planet to colonize after sterilizing it of all contaminating life forms, and ask you why they shouldn't sterilize Earth, what defense would you give? It would be unwise to claim our value to the universe on the basis of our accomplishments in science or the arts. It would be foolish to point to our rock idols or movie stars. But you might well say, "Ours is the species that produced...."

    Ulysses Grant, for whom death—a painful one by throat cancer—came at an awkward moment. He had been duped by a business partner, a swindler who left him and many others penniless. Then Grant was diagnosed with cancer and death announced his intention to pay a call. Well, death would just have to wait; the general was busy. Mark Twain agreed to publish Grant's memoirs, so as to provide for his family after his death, and Grant began writing furiously. After a year of unimaginable pain, Grant finished his memoir, added a page or two for the editor, and finally informed death that the general would see him now.

    Chiune Sugihara, who, while he was the Japanese Consul in Kaunas, Lithunania in 1940, saved the lives of over 6,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, by disobeying the orders of his government and granting them visas to Japan. When asked later why he did it. he said that these refugees were human beings and that they simply needed help. As he foresaw, his good deed did not go unpunished; he was dismissed from the Japanese diplomatic service in 1945 and spent the rest of his life in poverty. He lived just long enough to be honored by the state of Israel but all other tributes were posthumous.

    Private Ingram C. Lambert, who was trapped with the rest of C Company by barbed wire on Omaha Beach during D—Day. After fifteen minutes while no one did anything or gave any orders, Lambert decided to do something on his own. He picked up a Bangalore torpedo, jumped over a wall, crossed a road to the barbed wire, and tried set off the torpedo. It failed to ignite and he was killed by machine gun fire seconds later. But his action inspired a platoon leader to follow and ignite the torpedo, thus freeing the company to advance.

    The 3,460 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who showed conspicuous heroism in the course of protecting or saving the lives of their comrades.

    And a vast horde of other heroes, many of them nameless in the chronicles of history, or simply unknown [1].

    In all of these cases, the potential hero had to overcome fear, or that peculiar mixture of pride, avarice, and fear that we call selfishness. Courage is the conquest of fear by an overriding concern for others.

    Some have earned the title of hero undeservedly because they did not have the foresight or imagination to be afraid. Others, called "cowards" by the world, might better be thought of as near—heroes because their overactive imaginations painted pictures they eventually could not withstand. In such cases, heroism is a question of how long they endured before being (as engineers say)  'tested to destruction'. Many a man has died burdened with the guilt of cowardice who was greeted triumphantly in Heaven because he had desperately held out for as long as he could. We must not try to second guess God in separating the heroes from the cowards, for, as MacKeller says in Stevenson's Master of Ballantrae, "He who will judge the issue of our lives created us in our infirmity". And sometimes infirmity itself can be an invitation to heroism [2].

    But heroism doesn't just happen; it has to be learned gradually, by carrying out the ordinary tasks and duties of each day. (This is called 'responsibility' and is the raw material from which heroism is shaped.)

    Each of us has at some time fought silent battles in bed at 3 am that only we and God remember, or has doggedly kept on at a wearying thankless chore that would do us no good but would make someone else a bit happier or the world a bit better.

    The monotonous life of a family man, struggling week after week to stay one paycheck ahead of eviction, or of a mother, tumbling exhausted into bed every night only to be awakened by a baby's cries, can be a world—class training school for heroes. And its graduates don't even realize what they have become until an unexpected occasion arises.

    And so, on this day, we commemorate some of those graduates—the heroes of 9—11:

  •  the passengers of United 93, who rose from confusion and timidity to decision and action and thereby saved the nation's Capitol;

  •  passengers on the other flights, bewildered by what was happening to them, who found themselves flying into the towers or the Pentagon and endured their horrific end with a courage and resignation we can only guess at;

  •  the people in the towers, such as security men [3], who gave their lives to help others escape;

  •  the hundreds of New York City firemen and police who died doing their jobs;

  •  the soldiers who enlisted to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq to prevent another 9/11 [4];
  •  and the families of all of the above.

    I was tempted at this point to end by quoting the last sentence of the Gettysburg address. But the words a poet spoke for the dead heroes of a similar time of crisis are much more appropriate:

    "Take up our quarrel with the foe:

    To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch, be yours to hold it high.

    If you break faith with us who die

    We shall not sleep..."

    Our task is now to strive to be worthy of our heroes

    Notes:

    [1]  Slate once published a list of the top sixty charitable donors of 1996. The editor, Jodie T. Allen, noted sadly that "most of the Slate 60 have chosen to endow institutes, centers, faculty residences, and academic chairs...rather than the poor and helpless, but there were  two $1,000,000 exceptions, both anonymous. One was...the transfer  (via a plain white envelope with no return address) to St. Jude's Children's Hospital of a winning McDonald's lottery ticket."

    [2] Jane Hess Merchant  was confined to her bed at age twelve by congenital bone disease, became deaf by age twenty—three, and had to wear thick glasses to see.. Rather than wallow in self—pity, she used what life she had to write more than 3,000 joyous and whimsical poems.

    [3] The stories of Douglas Karpiloff, John O'Neil, and Esmrtlin Salcedo  are particularly moving. But there were many others, some of whose stories are still unknown.

    [4] The  National Museum of American History's recent exhibition "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" quoted one soldier in Iraq as saying, "Somebody had to do it, and you couldn't just keep expecting the other guy to do it." He probably never heard of Private Lambert but he was cast from the same mold.