Heroic Efforts

In the wake of the horrific Las Vegas shooting last week, there was–justifiably–a great deal of media coverage on the first responders, police, and healthcare workers whose actions saved hundreds of lives.  But there was also attention paid to the actions of ordinary citizens who risked their own safety to save others, and those stories prompted me to think about the untold heroes in our everyday world.  Contemporary society idolizes pop stars, Youtubers, Hollywood names, and sports players, but the true heroes reside among us:

The blue-collar construction worker who rises at 5 AM on a blustery January morning, sipping cheap 7-11 coffee from a thermos, frost on his beard, to pour asphalt on a new county road for $9 an hour to feed his wife and three daughters.

The fifteen-year-old, openly gay sophomore boy who faces daily jeers and abuse in the halls of his high school, routinely shoved into lockers, tripped in the cafeteria, and bullied online, to advance our social mores by an almost imperceptible margin.

The young black couple in inner-city Baltimore who determinedly raise their two sons to be upstanding, polite, scholarly men amid the crushing weight of poverty and neighborhood gang violence.

The first-generation college student from an uneducated rural Hispanic family who stays awake until 4 AM studying her pre-med coursework, sacrificing friendships and social engagements, to fulfill her dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

The 85-year-old widow with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and depression who grimaces through a 1/2-mile walk every Wednesday to read to elementary school foster kids at the local library.

The heroin addict struggling to come clean, bouncing in and out of rehab centers and methadone clinics, barely holding onto her waitress job, in order to give her 3-year-old daughter a better life.

The recently graduated, debt-strapped teacher who spends hours crafting original lesson plans, buying classroom supplies with his own food budget, because he is fixedly intent on not simply instructing but inspiring his students.

Often, when I walk the streets or in public places, I watch the people around me and wonder about their stories.  After the tragedy of last week, I am more certain than ever that each of them, and each of us, is heroic.



Right now is the time of year when newly hired residents are starting their clinical work at the hospital, and as such, icebreakers abound.  Icebreakers are those painfully awkward questions that teachers, camp counselors, and HR professionals seem uniformly to believe represent the sole approach for introducing humans to one another.  The questions vary from the vapid–what is your favorite color?–to the strange–if you were a kitchen appliance, what would you be?–to the intrusive–what is your most embarrassing moment?  The answers to these questions are invariably as banal as the questions themselves; respondents give safe, socially normalized, uninformative replies–thereby providing no entertainment and failing to accomplish the icebreaker’s very purpose of acquainting people with one another.

In this spirit, I recently faced the timeless classic icebreaker, “If you were a superhero, what would be your superpower?”  Before the group of assembled residents, I gave one of the standard, well-worn replies: “To fly!” “Be invisible.”  “Walk through walls.”  But internally, I wondered: What, truly, would I want to be able to do, if I could do anything?  The answer came to me more quickly than expected.  I don’t want to run at light speed, to have superhuman strength, or to move objects with my mind.  I want to understand the human heart.  To assuage pain or shame or anger when people hurt.  To dismantle fears when they feel afraid.  To bolster resolve when they fail.  To celebrate joys when they love.

Turns out, I already possess this power.  We all do.  We exercise it in the moment when we give our seat to a weary stranger on the subway.  When we help an elderly widow with her groceries at the store.  When we smile and say “thank you” to the office janitor.  When we read books to shelter kids at the local library.  When we grab a beer with a friend and just listen to the crickets and the settling quiet of dusk.  When we pause for a moment, consider the feelings and worries and needs and dreams of the people around us, and act.  Then, we have superpowers.