Last week the world witnessed a startling feat of heroism, when Malian immigrant Mamoudou Gassama climbed four stories up the side of an apartment building to rescue a toddler dangling from a balcony.
According to the twenty-two year old young man, he reacted instinctively, scaling the building without stopping to think about the implications. Indeed, if he’d paused to consider the possible consequences, he might not have taken action. Not only did he risk injury and death, but also, because he was residing illegally in Paris, his highly visible activities were guaranteed to alert the authorities to his existence. His story ended happily—the French government (rather hypocritically, considering their general policy toward migrants) gave him immediate citizenship—but it could have had a far different conclusion.
Stories like Gassama’s always make me feel a little bit better about humanity. I wish the media did more to celebrate the everyday heroes who put aside their own best interests to help others. There are more of these people than we realize; they just express their heroism in somewhat less spectacular ways than the guy whom the tabloids have christened “Spiderman”. I’m awed, for instance, by the people who work with Doctors Without Borders, providing medical and humanitarian services in conflict zones where they are as much targets as the individuals they serve. Or for an even quieter type of heroism, consider the millions of people who devote themselves to the health and well-being of the severely disabled—not just professionals (though their day-in, day-out service is also heroic), but ordinary folks whose children, siblings or parents can’t survive without them.
I have a three-year old cousin who was born with SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), a genetic neuromuscular disorder that leads to gradual paralysis and (usually) early death. His parents are my personal heroes. They’ve reorganized their lives to give little D not just the medical support he needs, but also to make his childhood as normal as they can. Last year, the whole family (D has a seven year old brother) took a trip to Disneyland, despite the fact that D is confined to a wheelchair and has to wear an oxygen mask because his lung muscles are too weak to let him breathe.
“That’s family,” you might say. “Everyone takes care of their own blood.” Aside from the fact that there are many dedicated caregivers who work with unrelated individuals, does that make the actions, the dedication, the sacrifice, worth any less? Not to me, at least.
Although sometimes it seems that society has become totally selfish and self-centered (think about the billions of dollars spent on devices to capture and “share” trivial self-portraits), altruism is a fundamental human characteristic, one that is not sufficiently acknowledged. It flows, I believe, from the unconscious knowledge that we are all connected. I don’t think it’s an accident that last week’s Spiderman comes from a traditional culture where family and community are given higher value than in individualistic Western societies. I don’t have any data, but I’d bet that instances of heroism like this are more common in more sparsely populated rural or agricultural areas, where people tend to know their neighbors, than in crowded, anonymous cities.
Superheroes are all the rage these days. Traditional comic book characters are being resurrected and reshaped for the twenty first century. From what I can see, though, these characters are more occupied with egotism and inter-personal conflicts than with truly helping the powerless. In today’s typical superhero film, the so-called heroes have no qualms about destroying vast swathes of public infrastructure in their pursuit of the so-called villains. Civilians become collateral damage in a clash of super-powered titans.
Entertaining? Maybe, but I wouldn’t label that as heroism.
Real heroes aren’t necessarily as flashy. But they’re all around us, if we look. Including when we look in the mirror.