September 26th, 2002


Thoughts on heroism

My fiance/roommate/bestfriend died very suddenly, three years ago. It was the most traumatic life event I've experienced thus far. I remember in the days, weeks, even months afterwards, as I was pulling my life back together, people would tell me I was "brave", or "strong". I wanted to tell them, "It's not courage; it's tenacity." I didn't know what I was doing, or how to do it. I wasn't doing anything particularly special. I was just getting by, surviving. Doing what had to be done. Because I had no other choice.

There was a really good line in the movie Bounce that has always stuck with me. The girl is describing something from her past, and the guy says something about her courage. She says, "Courageous, I was terrified!" And he says, "It's not courage if you're not scared."

Somebody on my friends list is going through some horribly difficult family struggles right now, handling them to the best of her ability. Surviving. At one point, after something she wrote describing her experiences, I saw somebody comment to her, calling her an "angel". Several people, actually, were lavishly praising her that way. I remember being startled by that comment, that they were holding her in such high esteem. Not that I didn't admire her for how she was handling what she and her family were going through, but the praise struck me as excessive. Not long afterward, she posted something very wise, "I am not a saint. ... I'm not doing anything you wouldn't do yourself if there was no one else to do it."

Interestingly enough, just recently she wrote about how much she admires her sister for all she is doing and surviving during the family's crisis (which affects the sister much more intimately). She referred to her sister as a hero. And I must say that I agreed with what she wrote...I cannot imagine being in her sister's situation. It is more day-to-day struggle than I can conceive of with my current life-experiences.

I remember, not long before S died, there was a woman at my office who suddenly lost her husband in a car accident. My heart was torn up by the idea of her loss. I couldn't even imagine what it must be like. I couldn't imagine how one would survive, after such an experience. How could you sleep in that empty bed, get up, go to work, interact with people, go on living, when the most important person in the world to you had been ripped so tragically and completely from you? When your whole life so dramatically changed?

After I lost S, I thought often of her, my coworker. There was a little voice in my head which basically said, "Oh, that's how." You just do, without knowing how, because there is no other option. And I learned something: the human spirit is a great and powerful thing, far far stronger than we generally think it is. Its resilience is amazing.

I think it is our tendency as human beings, to canonize somebody going through a struggle which we ourselves cannot conceive of enduring. We read in books, in papers, of terrible tragedies that people have survived, incredible acts of heroism and kindness and bravery that others commit, and we are in awe....we think of the people involved as somehow superhuman, so much more than we. Yet they are people, just like us. People in extraordinary situations, doing what makes the most sense, managing them the best they can. There are those who buckle under such situations, yes. But very often, ordinary people are pretty damn amazing. Capable of far more than they realize, when put to the test.