A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

So, for that matter, does heroism.

Some acts of heroism are larger-than-life.  They take place on such a gigantic scale that they are almost impossible to comprehend.  The heroic acts of the passengers on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, which resulted in the airliner crashing into the fields near Shanksville, Pa., instead of . . . well, whatever target terrorists had in mind . . . is an example of heroism on a grand scale.  We read about it.  We are inspired by it.  We celebrate it.  But we rarely experience it in a personal way that is meaningful and relevant to our everyday lives.

But there are other acts of heroism that are smaller and more intimate that happen almost every day in our lives.  These are not the stuff of which feature films are made and to which impressive memorials are erected.  But that doesn’t make them any less heroic – especially not to those whose lives are affected by them.

For example, I mourned with my friends in West Virginia for the 13 miners who were lost in the tragic Sago Mine disaster a few weeks ago.  That heartbreaking loss to families and communities is almost incalculable.  But through all of the anguish and controversy, I was touched and inspired by the heroic act of several of the lost miners, who used their last breaths to write comforting words to their families and to the families of their fallen colleagues.

“The notes said they weren’t suffering, they were just going to sleep,” said one victim’s daughter, who added that the message in all the notes was clear: “Your dad didn’t suffer.”

What sort of courage does that take?  At a time when you would think that the natural human inclination would be toward self-protection and preservation, these men reached out with tenderness and compassion toward those whom they would leave behind.  No, they weren’t able to heroically conquer the physical obstacles that held them beneath the ground.  But they were able to conquer the selfishness and narcissism that holds most of the world captive these days in order to give their loved ones the one thing that only they could give: peace.

Larger-than-life?  Maybe not.  But heroic?  Absolutely.

Similar real-life heroism was exhibited, in my view, by a village police officer in upstate New York, who was running for the Town Board in last November’s elections.  In his political advertising he mentioned his experience as a police officer and the fact that he had been awarded a “Medal of Honor” from village trustees for work he did at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001.  When a New York City officer lambasted the ad and said it “disgraced” the memory of his fellow New York City and Port Authority officers who lost their lives on Sept. 11, the upstate officer immediately pulled the ad and apologized, indicating that even though he DID receive his village’s “medal of honor” for his Sept. 11 service, “I would never dishonor the memories of those who fell or those who served on that day of days.”

But this apology wasn’t enough for the New York City officer, who continued his attacks on the upstate officer.  Now, I don’t really know why the big city officer was so worked up over a town board election in a small village in upstate New York.  I just know that the upstate officer handled the attacks with dignity, class and grace.  I’m sure it was tempting to fight vitriol with vitriol and to question the “heroism” of so mean-spirited a bully.  But he never did.  Not once.  At a time when political rhetoric is often so angry and divisive, I find that kind of restraint refreshing.

Maybe even heroic.  Not larger-than-life – just life-size.

And sometimes that’s best size of hero to be.

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— © Joseph Walker

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