I once argued with my former coworker about firefighters. She didn’t consider them heroes, as they were widely and properly called after September 11, 2001, because on that day, like any other, “they were just doing their jobs,” she said.
Obviously, the firefighters who climbed 70 or more stories inside towering infernos were doing their chosen work. But her use of the word “just” implied that if they are expected to make that climb then they shouldn’t be called heroes; or that fighting fires for a living is basically no different than, say, selling ice cream.
What distinguishes firefighters from people in most other professions, I replied, is the nature of their jobs. Fighting fires to save human lives and property — especially fires set by planes crashed into enormous skyscrapers — involves an inherent element of heroism.
But this distinction she either couldn’t grasp or, I believe, stubbornly wouldn’t acknowledge. Nevertheless, to portray a firefighter’s job as basically no different from hazardless occupations does an injustice to the 9/11 firefighters, both living and dead.
I recalled this argument recently at a street-dedication ceremony for New York City firefighter Robert Spear, who died trying to save innocent people terrorized and trapped inside the melting Twin Towers. It hit me when one government official during his speech said: “It’s hard to fathom where people get the courage to do their job and to run into a building that’s on fire and is in severe distress when everyone else is running out. It’s something very, very special. It’s something very much to be honored, to be among people who devote their lives to being there at the last extremity, at the worst of times, and putting their lives on the line for their fellow human beings.”
I don’t know what my former coworker’s idea of a hero was. I doubt she even had one. But here’s the best definition I’ve come across: an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goals relentlessly in the face of powerful antagonists.
Heroes come in various shapes and sizes. One kind is the individual who originates an idea or makes a discovery that is true and champions it despite that most or all people morally condemn him. The individual who discovered fire probably faced such condemnation, just as Galileo did when he upheld his heliocentric theory before the Catholic Church. This individual — the one willing to stand alone with unwavering integrity to his idea against a mistaken or irrational world — is to me the most courageous of heroes.
Another kind is embodied by Robert Spear, the individual willing to risk life and limb against the powerful antagonist of a dangerous concrete situation, as he pursues his goal to save innocent lives and restore law, order and calm in a sometimes war-like, chaotic world.
To imply that this individual is “just” doing any ole job is an attempt, whether knowingly or not, to undercut his heroic status. A status such cynics enviously recognize they don’t have the courage or ability to achieve themselves.