On NPR last night a military doctor described his admiration for a soldier who had been injured rescuing his buddy from a burning Humvee. I was immediately moved as I tried to imagine how it must have felt for that soldier in that moment and beyond, and intrigued by my longing to feel the same thing.
It is my impression that one is no more fully alive than when they are engaged in heroic acts no matter how significant or small or unseen. Perhaps we are obsessed with heroes and heroism for that very reason. From the current NBC series to the NYFD action figures to the herculean expectations we set for our politicians and leaders heroism is hipper than ever.
In our modern culture heroes ascend from the common ranks rather than descend from divinity. Centuries ago our heroes were either gods themselves or were directly related (Zeus, Jesus, etc.) Later they could be one of us, but they had to have a special blessing (King Arthur, etc.) Nowadays the idea of being "god-like" has been kidnapped by New Age Humanism which morphed from 19th century Eugenics (Michael Jordan, The X-Men, etc.)
Now anybody can be considered a hero for just about any reason. Which begs the question... is it heroic to return a lost wallet? Or rescue a buddy from a burning vehicle? Or go to work everyday to provide for your family? Wouldn't we do these things anyway? What makes the everyday sacrifices we make heroic?
The answer it seems is not in the actions that we take but the spirit in which we do them, and by spirit I mean the intrinsic human need for transcendence we all share. If that is the case then anything we do beyond our own self-interest can be considered heroic which may not be such a bad thing. Even when altruism is ordinary, it is still extraordinary in the grander scheme of things.
So on the heroism scale from 1 to 10 -- with 10 being an immaculate sacrifice for all mankind, and 1 being the incarnation of pure evil -- a hero factor of 5 would be something like making yourself a sandwich. From that point anything you do for someone else would certainly raise the factor. In the end the only extraordinary thing any of us can do is what we do for someone else.
The factor would also increase with anonymity and according to the degree of sacrifice either physically, emotionally or mentally. It would also depend on whether you did so voluntarily. It is unclear whether the actual success of your endeavor matters, since a prolonged sacrifice to no avail could certainly be heroic but probably not as much as one that actually made a difference.
That said, something as mundane as changing a diaper, or cleaning up trash, or driving with respect can be heroic if you give yourself permission to feel like a hero for doing it. Once you can do that you might also begin to recognize the anonymous faces all around you as the heroes they really are.