Occasionally, the media latches on to a concept, passes it on the public who latch onto it too and it becomes a phenomenon. We've seen that happen with fads, words and phrases, behaviors and dress and now it's happening again with heroes. We've got way too many of them.
I'm referring specifically to the military, police, and firemen, primarily as an aftermath of 9/11. A hero is defined as a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for their brave deeds and noble qualities and there certainly were heroes that day in New York City. But just because you wear a uniform doesn't make you one. I worked with 550 other officers on the Tulsa Police Department and we had a few heroes, too.
The key word here is "few." I don't know what their motivation was because we're all motivated by different things, but there was always someone to step up when the situation required it. But most officers didn't and a few even tried to avoid critical situations. It's like that in every arena, every occupation, and every group.
I place genuine heroes in the same category as leaders and we all know the world is made up of far more followers than leaders. Most people are more comfortable taking orders than giving them because when things go wrong, as they often do, they don't want to be blamed for it. In fact, they're the ones that want to point their fingers and blame somebody else, shirking responsibility for their actions because they were just doing what they were told to do.
We can't get into the minds of other people and understand what motivates their behavior, even though we try. But we see behaviors in others every day that go against the grain, that makes no sense, and we don't understand why they did what they did. Is a hero always motivated by the same emotion? Of course they're not. We're motivated by the particular situation we find ourselves in and no situation is ever exactly the same as a previous one. We may be motivated by a true desire to help, or to do something because nobody else will, or to impress our friends, family, or colleagues. And that motivation is different with every situation we encounter.
Heroism is often connected to altruism. Altruism is a selfless act; doing something for someone else with no expectation of anything in return. Falling on a bomb to protect your fellow soldiers, sacrificing yourself to save others, donating large amounts of money to a worthy cause anonymously, serving the community or others selflessly, etc.
But again we don't know what motivates someone to do that. Is it truly altruism or do they do it for some other reason? As in heroism, there's no way to know. We judge people's behaviors all the time but behavior is only part of the puzzle because every behavior is motivated by a thought process. To truly understand the behavior, you also have to understand what was in the person's mind at the time and there's no way we can do that. So we just assume a heroic act was a heroic act because of what we witnessed, without understanding the mindset of the person at all.
Sometimes there is no mindset, at least not one that we're aware of. Several years ago, when my son, Michael, was living with me and attending MCC, we were driving to Arkansas one Friday night and just east of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, I saw a headlight in the median shining straight up in the sky. I knew immediately that a motorcycle had wrecked and pulled over on the shoulder. About the same time, a trucker driving west spotted it too and pulled his rig over. Michael and I got out of the car and ran across two lanes of traffic to the median, getting there about the same time as the truck driver.
A man was lying next to his overturned cycle gurgling up blood and the trucker and I started alternating chest compressions while another motorist called 911. When Michael saw the condition of the injured cyclist, he returned to the car and stayed there. We continued doing whatever we could do to save the man's life until medical personnel arrived.
Stopping and rendering aid was an intuitive response on my part. Maybe it had to do with the way I was raised or the way I was trained in the police academy. Maybe it had to do with my moral code or my sense of obligation to others. I don't know what made me do it except I knew when I saw the light in the sky that something bad had happened and I had to stop and do whatever I could do. Most of the other people who drove by the accident scene that night didn't stop.
And so, since we're not able to read people's minds, we take acts at face value. If it looks like heroism then it IS heroism.
If it looks like an altruistic act, then it IS an altruistic act. And so, we take the actions of a few and impose that quality on everyone that looks like them. So all soldiers, police officers, and fireman become heroes because of what a few of their brethren did and this denigrates and diminishes the actions of those few brave souls when their individual behaviors are extrapolated out to anyone who looks like them or wears the same uniform.
I've never been one to give respect simply because of a person's status. I was taught as a child that people have to earn respect and so that's how I've always acted. That's why I respect some people in the lower class much more than some people in the upper class.
I see who they are and I know what they do in both groups and, consequently, I respect some and don't respect others.
To preserve the very act of heroism, we have to do the same thing. Respect is reserved for the few, not the many and it has to be earned rather than awarded.