This week’s news brought the remarkable story of Wesley Autrey, a 50 year-old Vietnam veteran who jumped in front of a subway train to save a man who had fallen onto the tracks while having a seizure.
18-year-old Cameron Hollowpeter suffered a seizure while Autrey, accompanied by his two daughters, was waiting on the platform for the subway. Hollowpeter fell to the tracks after losing his balance, as an incoming train approached the platform. Autrey jumped down to save him — as his daughters looked on — initially attempting to pull him out, but realizing with split-second judgment that there was insufficient time to extract the still-seizing man from the tracks. He threw himself over Hollowpeter, wrapping him in his body to protect his flailing arms, in the shallow ditch between the electrified rails. The train screeched to a halt after passing overhead with but inches to spare, miraculously leaving both men without serious injury.
True acts of heroism are of course newsworthy, and at once both extraordinary and sobering (would you or I have done what Wes Autrey did?) — and draw a sharp and unflattering contrast with what often passes for heroism in our modern culture.
We hear of heroes daily in the papers and on TV: the fireman who rescues a child from a burning building; the policeman shot in the line of duty; the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save the lives of his buddies. Such acts are heroism indeed, comprised of its core virtue: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life or well-being for another. We say this although we expect such things of these men and women, for this is their chosen calling and career, one which by its nature places them in harm’s way for the benefit of others.
Cheap heroism seeps deeply into our culture like some toxic effluent, poisoning even simple principled acts with a pretension of greatness.
Yet there is increasingly a class of acts now painted as “heroism” which deserves no such depiction. Such cheap heroes — the civic equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace Christians — seem to grow in number daily. They make no sacrifices, take no risks, suffer no losses when their “heroic” deeds are done. In a society increasing bereft of moral standards and the simplest traits of noble character and integrity, we paint a heroic stamp of approval on increasingly pathetic gestures, gilding our self-serving deeds with a thin gloss of glory.
These hollow heroes come quickly to mind. Talented athletes, paid millions to toss balls through nets or batter baseballs into distant bleachers with steroid-enhanced expertise are idolized as paladins, as children pine to reproduce their acts of glory and emulate their rich, undisciplined, and often decadent lifestyles. Hollywood celebrities are hailed as heroes for attending media-saturated charity events, where a trivial pittance of their vast fortunes are donated to self-serving causes such as AIDS research, hedging bets against their own hedonism. Heroes in TV dramas and film are violent, vengeful, and have the sexual morality of Caligula. Our modern heroes seem far more hollow and self-serving than honorable.
Cheap heroism seeps deeply into our culture like some toxic effluent, poisoning even simple principled acts with a pretension of greatness. Children are given “Hero” stickers for finishing homework or showing up at school; I receive a hero tee-shirt for lying on a couch, getting a pinprick, and donating a pint of blood. We are heroes for donating a few bucks to a charity, for helping out at our children’s school, for volunteering at a hospital or soup kitchen. Every patient undergoing chemotherapy for cancer is now a hero — especially if they have a disease such as breast cancer or Kaposi’s sarcoma which reach disproportionate degrees of prominence by occurring in politically vocal victim groups such as feminists and gays.
The ever-contracting world of a narcissistic culture seeks half-pint heroes to ennoble their selfish, empty deeds and sustain their overwrought egos.
What we have done, in short, is hyperbolize deeds which should be commonplace and hardly noteworthy for people of character and integrity on an everyday basis. We have glorified those actions which are trivial and turned them into great triumphs — thereby making ourselves much smaller by their enlargement. The ever-contracting world of a narcissistic culture seeks half-pint heroes to ennoble their selfish, empty deeds and sustain their overwrought egos.
When genuine acts of heroism occur, such as Mr. Autrey’s extraordinary rescue, the narcissistic culture erupts into spasms of euphoric ecstasy, as if some alien from another planet had landed: they have no grasp whatsoever of what would motivate any man to do such a thing, and have no frame of reference to discover one. Watch closely as Mr Autrey makes his rounds on Regis and Oprah, or beams from the cover of People magazine promoting their vapid interview within. You will see slack-jawed awe at his actions, but eyes reflecting the empty souls which long ago abandoned the place from which such deeds arise — if indeed they ever knew it.
True acts of heroism arise from a willingness to sacrifice self for others, inculcated either by training, such as that given to soldiers, or arising from the strength of spiritual conviction that such deeds have redemptive value, or spring from the gratitude and power of transformational grace. When you have nothing to live for, there is nothing worth dying for. The saint and the soldier understand this; the secular skeptic enthrones tiny kings on tinplate thrones, paying homage to images of themselves while pretending such worship makes life worthwhile.
Wesley Autrey has taught us all a great lesson, of the power of self-sacrifice and the value of character and integrity. How sad it is that so very few will truly grasp its import.