Coping with Trauma — 28 November 2003
Everyday heroism 9/11/01

Acts of heroism have always been considered to be the highest form of human conduct. One of the dictionary definitions of a hero is ” a man of distinguished valor”. It was frequently attributed to war actions or the defense of one’s family or home. It was also associated with risking one’s life in the pursuit of something noble.

Today the definition of heroism has been expanded. During and since the tragedy of Sept. 11 many people exhibited heroism with a variety of selfless acts.

We read about the brave firefighters, who knowingly risked their lives to save others, and the policemen who rushed to the scene knowing full well the dangers associated with their tasks. We read about two men who carried a woman in her wheelchair many flights of stairs to safety, and about the man who refused to leave his quadriplegic friend alone and perished with him. All these stories and many others evoke in us great admiration for these heroes.

We also know of thousands volunteers, who have left their lives behind, to help with the rescue operations hoping to save even one life. Many are still working twelve- hour shifts, day after day, often refusing to stop to eat, rest or sleep. This type of selfless dedication to others is nothing short of heroic.

So why are we so intrigued by every detail of the sacrifices some people are capable of in times of need? because we know how exceptional these acts are and because they are the reflection of our own sense of altruism.
The reason heroic acts are so valued is because they are physically and psychologically contradictory to survival.

Erich Fromm, the early century psychoanalyst, social philosopher, and author, put it this way: “Man must satisfy his bodily needs in order to survive, and his instincts motivate him to sustain life adequately, to ensure the survival of the individual and the species.” All human instincts, behavior and intuition are primarily concerned with self-preservation. An infant cries for food, we experience fear in face of danger so that we will protect ourselves. We are programmed to guard against all harm to assure our continued existence.

Physically, our bodies use hunger to induce feeding. Feeling too cold or hot alerts us to manage our bodies’ temperature. Pain warns us of the malfunction of an affected organ. We know when we need to sleep to refresh ourselves and when we need to drink to hydrate. When we ignore these and other signs of self -care, we act contrary to our survival demands. To overrule nature’s signals requires tenacity, the capacity to tune out pain and a deliberate disregard for self needs. When this is done to help others, it is indeed heroic.

I believe that heroism is any act that involves the abandonment of one’s own needs for the good of another. The greater the sacrifice, the more heroic the individual is. A hero is a person who acts selflessly to help others. Suicide bombing, killing oneself in the process of intentionally killing others is the antithesis of heroism, since it is intended to harm others.

Some have claimed that acts of war heroes, who risk their lives to rescue a fallen soldier, or cover a grenade with their bodies, are acts of temporary insanity. Since self -preservation is a basic human need, the undertaking of an extremely risky behavior with a low probability of success may be termed “insane”, illogical or unnatural. That, however, is also the highest moral impulse- to save a life or lives. When questioned later, those heroes who survive, recall that their only compelling consideration was of saving others, they never even considered the risk to themselves. Were they insane or saintly?

I also believe that good people possess the capacity for self-sacrifice in the service of another’s well being. If we term this loving behavior everyday-heroism, most of you have exhibited it in your lives many times.

For example, I know of a woman who cooks, serves and visits an unrelated elderly man on a weekly basis. She doesn’t save his life, but enhances it, with a small time-consuming commitment on her part. Yes, she probably gets the satisfaction of doing a kind deed, but that certainly is not what motivates her. Her life is full with many other personal and family obligations. Yet, she inconveniences herself weekly, for several years, to do what is kind and loving.

We all know many other people who extend themselves to do kind deeds for the sake of others. We know of many volunteers, good neighbors, good Samaritans for whom, at times, the well being of another takes priority over their own. Those are the everyday -heroes.

Ask yourself: “when last did I sacrifice some of my free time, convenience, resources and energy to help another? Did I do this for a reward, or was it done out of pure love and concern?” When you count the ways, you will find that you too, are an everyday-hero.

One small way that we as individuals can defy terrorism is to exercise our freedom to help others. We can continue to be united in our connection to each other and learn from the real heroes about love and sacrifice.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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