What is a Hero?

by Trish Overby

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

On a blustery, cold January evening in 1982, an Air Florida flight smashed into the cold Potomac River.  At first, it looked like no survivors but then six people could be seen clinging to the tail of the plane.  Finally two helicopter pilots from the local Coast Guard bravely arrived, throwing a lifeline into the icy water.  The guy who caught the life ring handed it to the person next to him.  He did this for the four other remaining survivors.  When the rescue helicopter dropped the life ring for the last time, they couldn’t see him in the freezing water.  He was gone.  There have been other instances, even recently, of people (mostly men) who put themselves at risk for others, even complete strangers, as mentioned above. 

Nobody can say what makes a hero.  Did they wake up and say, “I’m going to save someone today?”  Many psychologists are stumped with what makes a hero.  Even Darwin, with his survival of the fittest theory, couldn’t see what made a person put himself at risk for someone outside of his family or clan.  Of course, saving a member of your own family is still heroic and is supposedly part of the evolutionary theory.  But to put yourself at dangerous risk to save someone you don’t know isn’t.  So what makes them do it?

Bewildered Hero

“What I find fascinating is how rare it is for even a hero to understand his own heroism,” says Earl Babbie, Ph.D., a professor emeritus in behavioural sciences at Chapman University who has written extensively about heroics. “A few years back, a hijacker on a plane pointed a gun at a passenger. The flight attendant got between the gun and the passenger and said, ‘You’ll have to kill me first.’  Afterward when asked, she said ‘No, no, I’m no hero.’  I thought if that doesn’t qualify, what does?”

Obviously, there is something perhaps inexplicable from a scientific or evolutionary (if you believe in it) point of view.  Dr. Babbie concludes it was only a bewildered reflex that caused the attendant to stand in front of the passenger and put herself in danger.  How can this be?  Wouldn’t we see it happening more often if it was an automatic response?

Or could it be an attitude a person chooses that puts the other person first?  A hero doesn’t think about the possible life threatening danger to himself but thinks and acts quickly to help another person in danger. The action is based on the greater value given to another’s life.

Unlikely Hero

Just today, I heard about a 92 year old lady from Memphis, TN who was held at gun point in her own car.  She refused to give the man the money (all of $10) and spoke to him in a calm and peaceful voice that if he killed her she would go to heaven but he would go to hell.  The two of them sat in her car and talked for a further 10 minutes. Finally he ended up in tears and said he was going home to pray about all she said.  He left the car after giving the lady a kiss on the cheek and receiving the $10 (with a warning that he shouldn ’t spend it on whiskey!).

She wasn’t concerned about herself but she was concerned about him and what he was doing.  She valued his life over and above her own 92 years.  She talked to the man not as a threat or a thief but as a person whom God loved and cared for.  The man recognized this and was touched by it. It might have reminded him of some other kindness or love he had forgotten.  He might consider her a hero for saving his life from one of crime and punishment.

 So heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary deeds because they choose to.  By the way, the fellow who saved the five people after the Air Florida crash in the Potomac has a military scholarship, a College Society, a bridge, and an elementary school named after him.  Because he gave his life for others, he will be remembered and honoured for years to come.  Could I be so bold to ask, doesn’t this remind you of someone else 2000 years ago?  Maybe heroes were made possible because of the man named Jesus of Nazareth. 

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