While growing up in the 1960s, I lived on a dirt street in a small neighborhood, and many times after school, several of the neighborhood kids would gather to play baseball in front of my house. I remember coming up to bat and dreaming that I was playing in Game 7 of the World Series. It was the bottom of the ninth, my team was down by three runs, and there were already two outs in the inning. The count was three balls and two strikes, but the bases were loaded—there was still a chance. It was now or never. The pitcher delivered the ball, and I hit a grand slam, winning the World Series! In an instant, I became a hero!
As kids, we grow up looking to our favorite athlete, singer, or actor as a hero when all he or she ever did was hit a ball, belt out a song, or play a part really well. Our heroes may have been skillful, but were they truly heroic? What does it take to be a hero? What makes a hero heroic?
A favorite sports personality of mine was asked in an interview, "People say you're a hero. How do you respond to that?" He said, "No, I'm not," adding, "Are there really any heroes?"
The words "hero" and "heroine" come from the Greek word hērōs, which means "protector" or "defender." It is said to be etymologically related to the Latin word seruāre, meaning "to safeguard." Dictionaries define a hero as "a person noted for nobility, courage, and outstanding achievements." A hero can also be the main character or another person in a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through impressive feats of ingenuity, bravery, or strength, often sacrificing his or her concerns for a greater good.
The word "hero" does not appear in the Bible, but "safeguard" does, yet only once. In I Samuel 22:23 (KJV), David assures Abiathar the priest that, if he stays with him, he will "safeguard" him. Even though the Bible does not contain the word "hero," how many of its characters do we consider to be heroes? David would certainly get more than a few votes. What is more heroic than killing a lion or a bear as a teenage shepherd or slaying a giant with a few rocks? Many would consider Samson a hero, given his many feats of strength. How could a person possibly kill a thousand men with a jawbone of a donkey? Do we have a favorite Bible character whom we consider to be a hero? There are many to choose from.
Some people think that heroes are born not made. Others, like author Brodi Ashton, believe that "heroes are made by the paths they choose, not by the powers they are graced with." How many police officers, firefighters, and emergency workers, perhaps unnoticed, perform heroic acts each day, risking their lives for the sake of others? Is someone who chooses these lines of work a hero? In the last few years, it has become popular to consider members of the armed forces as heroes, but does a person's choice to become a soldier make him or her a hero?
Science tells us that some people have higher levels of a certain hormone than others, allowing them to remain cool under fire. Given the same situation, those who lack high levels of this hormone tend to become stressed and panic. Does the presence of high levels of this hormone make a person heroic?
Andrew Carnegie, the nineteenth-century steel baron and philanthropist, made his fortune by his ability to read human nature, but heroes stumped him. He could not understand why someone would struggle and perhaps risk everything, even his life—and do it for free! He was so intrigued by heroes that he began hunting them after the 1904 Harwick Mine Disaster, in which 181 died, including Selwyn M. Taylor and Daniel A. Lyle, both of whom sacrificed their lives rescuing others. In the end, Carnegie gave up his search, never understanding what makes a hero tick.
Perhaps he should have considered John 15:13, where Jesus says, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." Love can certainly play a role in heroism, but it is not precise enough to describe what makes a person act heroically.
The Roman biographer Plutarch, a man of Greek descent, reduced heroism to one word. Perhaps by reading a few short examples of heroism, we can begin to figure out Plutarch's one-word definition. Many have declared the following three people to be heroes:
In World War II Poland, the Nazis sealed off a sixteen-block area in Warsaw, imprisoning a half-million Polish Jews. A social worker, Irena Sendler, managed to secure a pass allowing her to enter the Warsaw Ghetto each day. Appalled by what she saw, she began smuggling children out by whatever means she could devise. She stuffed some in gunnysacks or body bags and buried others inside loads of goods. Some she took out in coffins. She carried one baby in a mechanic's toolbox. Risking her life every day in 1942 and 1943, Sendler managed to sneak 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto! The Nazis eventually caught her, breaking both of her legs and arms and sentencing her to death. On her execution day, someone bribed a guard, and her life was spared. She lived to be 98 years old. Later, when others proclaimed her a hero, she said she did not think of herself as a hero because she should have done more.
Also during World War II, the 52nd Bombardment Squadron was ordered to attack Koriyama, Japan. The lead aircraft was responsible for signaling the other planes to attack. In that plane, Henry Erwin's job was to drop a marker, a twenty-pound white phosphorus canister with a six-second fuse, through a tube in the belly of the aircraft. Positioning the canister in the launching chute, he pulled the pin on the pilot's orders, but the flare flew back up the tube, exploding in Erwin's face before falling to the floor. Though Erwin felt his hair catch fire and his nose start to melt, he dropped to his hands and knees, feeling for the canister. Although it was burning at thirteen-hundred degrees, he picked it up, cradling it to his body with his forearm, and began crawling toward the cockpit. With his entire upper body burning, he yelled for the copilot to open the window, through which he dropped the burning flare into the sky. He then fell back, his clothing on fire and his face charred beyond recognition. The crew had to use the fire extinguisher to put out the fire. Although his face and hands were severely burned, he survived, spending the next two-and-a-half years in the hospital. Henry Erwin saved his crew, sacrificing himself.
On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the frigid Potomac River during an ice storm. Live television recorded what happened next. As the plane began to sink, six people emerged from the wreckage, clinging to the tail section still sticking out of the water. The freezing rain and winds were so brutal that it took twenty minutes for a rescue helicopter to arrive. It dropped a life ring into the hands of one survivor and lifted him to safety. Then something peculiar happened. The next person to receive the ring handed it to someone else. The chopper lifted her to safety and wheeled back. The same man received the life ring and again passed it along. He did this until no one was left. When the chopper wheeled back for the last time, he had vanished beneath the icy waters and was gone. The man, later identified as Arland Williams, Jr., a forty-six-year-old federal bank examiner, feared water and had avoided it all his life, yet he sacrificed his life in an icy river for total strangers.
What virtue did these three people have in common? We will see in Part Two.
- Ronny H. Graham
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