Half-Pint Heroes

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.

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4 thoughts on “Half-Pint Heroes

  1. Once more, a spot on observation. The word hero has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. I wonder how much responsibility lies with the need for people in positions of leadership to appeal to the largest common denominator of a constituency, not for the purpose of recognizing trends or individuals but simply to bring attention to themselves. Your reference to “cheap grace” is perfect. I don’t know who said it, but the observation of “theology a mile wide and two inches deep” is a disease of our time.

    On another topic, thanks for visiting and commenting. Whatever I publish at my blog is up for grabs or it shouldn’t be there. You are more than welcome to quote me. If I say something and it gets misused it is my fault for not having made myself better understood. Similar to a rule I made up that “poor management is its own punishment.”

  2. I agree completely. I think about this concept every time I see an entertainer given knighthood by the Queen of England. Granted, nobody actually goes into battle with a sword on a horse, but still, there are plenty of young men who rise from nothing and do truly selfless and amazing things. Could we not knight one of them with enough pomp and circumstance to make the news for once?

    When I was in college, I once received the “Unsung Hero” award from the theater department for all of my work backstage to keep things running smoothly. This was the highest honor one could receive in the theater department. As I recall, the show that earned me the award was one where I was the props mistress, and the person presenting it waxed eloquent about my abilities to keep the props in order and get the actors what they needed. I smiled and thanked everyone, but those who knew me well could tell that I was not happy. They cornered me later and asked why.

    “Because,” I clearly remember saying, “it is not right to receive an award – especially this award – for just doing my job.”

    They tried to explain that it was exactly that reason for which I got the award, tried to convince me that I deserved it, tried not to become frustrated at what must have seemed an irrational reaction to them. I was only able to articulate that I was simply doing my job; I actually had not done anything outside of the description they presented to me when I asked what a props mistress was supposed to do. Implied in that was that my work was on a piece of fluff to entertain, not a life-saving or altering task, although I doubt that I even really understood that consciously at the time.

    The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I called such an award “dangerous” because when you reward ordinary effort that should be expected with a high honor you cheapen the honor, cheapen the effort itself, and inflate the ego of the worker. That person may never put forth such a normal effort again unless there is a reward in it for him. At that pronouncement, they gave up in disgust and went inside to party and celebrate. I stayed outside looking at the stars and wondering just how to get it across to others what I was trying to say.

    I do not blame them for being irritated. They thought that they were doing a nice things for a person that they respected for her abilities and I acted like they had given me a terminal illness. If I were still in contact with any of them, I would send them this post. It says clearly and compellingly what I was unable to say then and might help them to understand what the word “hero” should really mean.

  3. The same sort of thing has invaded our schools, in the last 30 to 35 years: Everything a student does, in many classrooms, is “celebrated,” simply because the student made some effort–often mediocre. A poorly written essay may get a smiley face, simply because the student wrote it. I have often argued that this kind of “celebration” of effort suggests that the student could not possibly do better, with more study, more effort, more learning.

    The long-term effects of this “self-esteem first” approach to teaching reached our colleges several years ago, and it wasn’t pretty. The students were conditioned to expect good marks and smiley faces for whatever kind of junk they turned in; not to mention a lot of leeway as to when they could turn them in, and the option of “make-up” work in place of that which was required. Many students dropped classes, when they learned their survival skills weren’t up to par.

    We cheapened the meaning of “self-esteem” and robbed the term of all value, just as we have robbed the terms “hero” and “awesome” of any real meaning.

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