“Heroism is the brilliant triumph of the soul over the flesh – that is to say, over fear of poverty, of suffering, of calumny, of sickness, of isolation, and of death. There is no serious piety without heroism. Heroism is the dazzling and glorious concentration of courage.” – Henri Frederic Amiel.
From propriety and justice, we move now to the first of two roles of exceptional virtue with an investigation of heroism, the outward manifestation of internal courage. While a meaningful life is possible without it, heroism offers an intense subjective meaning bordering on the tangible. It involves a dual benefit of both helping others and serving as an example. Heroism has three dimensions – everyday, occupational, and supererogatory.
The most immediate form of heroism is the subjective projection of the word “hero” onto the everyday actions of basically good individuals. A simple and common example occurs with parenting, where young children view their parents as heroes. I remember the excitement of my then young children rushing to me when I came home from work, their appreciation of my hard work and trust in my unerring knowledge. There are few times in life that one feels as intensely the subjective experience of being a “hero,” and it is indeed a great responsibility as all parents know.
The unquestionably higher level of heroism is the unexpected and gratuitous acts of ordinary people involving some personal risk or pain in the service of others. These can be incidental such as helping down a cat stranded in a tree, stopping to help a stranger change a tire on a freeway, or saving a drowning child, or deliberate such as donating blood, protesting nonviolently against tyranny and injustice, or even planting a tree in a public space. Everyday heroism originates from inner selflessness, courage, fortitude, and love for others and for nature. Individuals seeking greater meaning in their life may find it in frequent acts of such heroism or in more extreme acts such as anonymously donating a kidney.
Virtue and purpose merge in the choice of a heroic occupation. Firefighters, law enforcement officers, military servicemen and women, and emergency service personnel are good examples. The threat of danger to the individual is traded for the opportunity to help others or to maintain a harmonious society. The inner drive for such employment is not primarily monetary, but virtuous for most of them. The final proof of the virtue of such professions is seen when they save a life and yet deny their act was heroic, but rather “just doing my job.”
In this time of pandemic, there is no need to explain the heroism of other occupations. Health care workers risk their lives in treating patients with certain infectious diseases. But other examples abound – food service workers, postal workers, transportation personnel, and other front line workers risk their own health or that of loved ones for the good of their patients or customers.
(continued next blog)