Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Being a hero means being human

The other morning I went to the gym early to run and there were a couple of stories that interested me.  First on the Today Show was story about an albino seal left to fend for itself; the reddish, brown seal was apparently abandoned by his family due to his different color.  This lone young seal was found and rescued and placed in the care of a dolphinarium.  It was a nice, feel good story.
Less than 5 minutes later another came another story about a young motorcyclist who was pulled from underneath a burning wreckage after crashing.  There is actual video of this shocking event; a woman lies down on her belly to look underneath the car this man was under while the wreckage of the motorcycle, smashed into the front of the car, has flames shooting up in the air.   The bystanders had presumed that the man was dead, but this intrepid woman took a closer look and discovered he was still breathing.  Upon her pronouncement, a crowd of people descend on the still burning wreckage, lift the car on its side, and pull the injured man away from the fiery remains.  The young man, shown recovering in the hospital, expressed his deepest gratitude for their efforts, calling those people “heroic.”
I noticed a connection between these two stories, the one about an animal who left a young, different, and weaker animal to fend for itself and likely die without any sort of intervention from humans and the other story about the young motorcyclist. In one story a being was left for dead by his fellow beings, while in the other there was intervention to save this being’s life despite of the fact that they would be putting their own life in danger for a being who possibly would not survive even with their efforts.
With the recent anniversary of 9/11, America remembered the brave men and women who risked and even lost their lives undertaking extraordinary risks to themselves in order to save others.  These firefighters, police, and other public servants were call “heroic,” just as the “good Samaritans” in the story of the motorcyclist.  They should be honored, but I would like to say that rather than honoring them as “heroes,” we should honor them for being fully “human.” Hear me out…
The thing is I question whether we should title these people as “heroes;” especially if we remember the story of the seal.   If we were just like the animal kingdom, on 9/11 the first responders would have likely left the others to fend for themselves and not risked their own lives.    If we were just like the animals, those bystanders would not have risked their own lives for the sake of another, they would have left him to die.  What makes us human isn’t our ability to make tools or walk erect, what makes us human is the ability to care about our fellow humans beyond ourselves.  
Sure, there are some unusual instances when one animal species care for another, but this is the exception, not the rule.  Animals have no problems eating other animals, the Lion doesn’t cry for the gazelle he eats, and the mother seal left her pup behind because the pup was not adequate probably didn’t shed tears. For human beings, it’s quite the opposite; when a baby is born pre-mature, we labor and care for this weak and fragile baby to try to ensure its survival.  While animals leave the weak to wither away, humans intentionally exert additional care to help the weaker survive.
With all of the adoration of technology and the emphasis to become more logical and computer-like, we must realize that these things make us less human.  Remember the movie I, Robot in which “Spooner’s” life is saved by the robot because he had a greater chance of living.  “Spooner” was tortured by the fact the he lived while a young girl with a full life ahead of her died.  He wished it had been the other way, and was assured a human would have chosen differently. As Will Smith’s character says in the movie, there’s nothing there (pointing to his heart) just nuts and bolts (my paraphrase).  Interestingly enough, it’s the robot “sonny” that begins to blur the lines between machine and human in that he has capacity for feelings and emotion.  Computer logic tells us healthcare is too expensive for all, it tells us we can’t subsidize the well-being of others; computer logic is not human, humans know differently.
People rally for animals to be treated “humanely” which is odd in that animals don’t even treat each other “humanely.”  But it is our emotions, our feelings that drive us to wish to see even animals treated with dignity and respect.  When animals are in grave danger, humans rush to their assistance when nature simply would leave them be.  This is what makes us human, this is what makes us perhaps unique, we care. And we will often risk our lives for another fellow human being.
So this is why I wonder if we should stop using the word “hero” to describe humans who do amazing things for other human beings; for these actions do not make them heroic so much as these actions show them to be human.  When we fail to risk ourselves for others we fail to be human, we are in such cases sub-human.  When someone mistreats another human being they are in fact falling beneath the level of humanity, they have descended and abandoned what makes them special – their concern and care for the lives of fellow human beings. 
Perhaps also, in taking away the “hero” word, we can begin to realize that care and concern for other human beings is simply what is required for us to be human.  It’s not about going “above and beyond,” it’s about fulfilling one’s humanity.  Rather than shying away or resisting  the idea and the test to go beyond one’s self and be a ”hero,” we  must realize that we are all in fact challenged to fulfill our calling to be fully human.
We don’t need more heroes in this world, we simply need more humans.

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