Chaplain's Corner + Unlikely Heroes in Crisis Times
‘Unlikely’ in the title is not used without reason. ‘Likely’ heroes, in classic historical traditions, are found among either the spiritual elite, such as great legendary mythical gods, outstanding religious teachers, like those considered Hindu heroes, and great ascetic masters who renounced the material world, as in Buddhist chronicles, or among the nobility or warrior elite.i
However, in modern times we have learned that another type of hero can be recognized; that ordinary people perform in extraordinary ways and thus earn the designation of being ‘unlikely heroes.’
In San Diego as recently as early this year, 2014, we underwent a conflagration of near epic proportions way before the start of the usual California fire season. My own house was surrounded with raging fire and smoke a mile east and west of me and I was subsequently officially “sheltered in place” in my own home for two days amidst deadly smoke and blood-red skies.
The dedication of the ordinary, thus unlikely, heroes, the firefighters, police and sheriffs’ officers, in fact all emergency responders to this devastation, was above description. Now a cynic might say that it was their job to react. Well, yes. But, no! When interviewed, all mentioned that their primary motivation was the solidarity they had with all in the community “because we are all a family.” Really remarkable were those victims in the heat of the blaze who were helping other victims around them. I saw a number of TV reporter interviews who were told by these unsung heroes that they “could not abandon those around them who were in dire straits.” In fact, some of the newscasters themselves, while on live broadcast, were shown literally putting down their microphones and dousing flames at homes that they had come upon that were on fire or under threat. Once again, their connection to the community was their explanation for their action.
Such heroism is certainly not geographically specific, or limited to any specific religious tradition. A couple of contemporary examples of other ‘unlikely heroes’ that stepped up to help others in untoward times come to mind. For example, in the ‘slide to war’ in the former Yugoslavia, in the late 20th Century, a relatively unknown young Jewish artist, Sally Becker, put her life in danger countless times and was even brutally shot herself trying to save beleaguered Bosnian families and their children.ii Another news account last year reported a group of Moslems in Egypt protecting a Christian Coptic Church during a service.iii
Interviews of the emergency responders during the San Diego County Fires may provide a motivation for their heroism, and the heroism of others. Practically all interviewed said they felt it a duty as they had a connection to God and with one another. Many spiritual traditions maintain that harmonious relations with all around one and with God Himself can be the wellspring of peace in the world. We can note the words of the Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dali Lamaiv: “If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.” This could be both a prayer and a practice that all of us can aspire to.
A Christian understanding would inform us that we are all made in God’s image and are to care for one another. “And this commandment we have from God, that he, who loveth God, love also his brother” (1Jn 4:21).
Unlikely heroism, for any of us, is being prepared to respond: “Yes!” if God at any moment asks us if we are “our brother’s keeper.” (Gn 4:9)