This column is difficult for me to write, and not merely because I'm in hour 180 of an ear problem that has left me near-deaf, in pain, and suffering from vertigo that occasionally makes me drift slightly off-course, so I'll look up at the screen and note that yjr drmyrmvr o esd ytuomh yp etoyr ;ppld ;olr yjod/
No, I find myself again custodian of a weekly soapbox where I try to make sense of the senseless, struggling between the extremes of babbling on in the same fashion that others have (really, what insight can I possibly offer into this affair when some of the brightest and most eloquent minds of the world have already done so?), and risking irreverence by tying into a hobby that is, ultimately, unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Of course, I'm speaking of the Columbia tragedy, and the sacrifice made by its crew.
This is a sacrifice that has been called "heroic" by many; the astronauts themselves have been described as heroes.
And, as I was sitting in my hotel room, watching the news, thinking random thoughts (Did this tragedy seem somehow less real because it happened on a Saturday? Do I deal with crises in the short term by worrying how this affects work or school? "Do we stay open? Do we go home?"), one of the thoughts I had was, is the death of people who were just trying to come home really heroic? What is a hero? Is the death of an astronaut trying to return a vessel to Earth any more heroic than an airline pilot who goes down with his plane, or a train engineer who perishes when his charge derails? What about all the astronauts who haven't died?
Farming, logging, crab fishing, and firefighting are some of the most dangerous professions in the United States, yet only one of those is routinely described as "heroic." Why is this? Is it because three of the four don't involve saving lives? If so, does this mean the farmer who dies while trying to produce food to keep people from starving to death is less heroic than a firefighter who saves someone? Is heroism tied to the immediacy of the situation? Is the fireman who saves the lives of those in a home more heroic than the building inspector who keeps it from burning in the first place?
I also thought of one of the great conundrums I've faced when thinking about history, fiction, and gaming. Is it heroic when the deed in question needs to be done? Is the party that assembles to save the world - whether on the beaches of Normandy or the peaks of Mount Doom -- doing something heroic if they are the only ones who can do so? (Presumably they have some vested interest in continuing to have a world to live in.)
Now, as is often the conceit for columns of this sort, I've consulted my Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary. And one of the definitions presented for "hero" is "one that shows great courage."
This was interesting, since I immediately thought of one of the adages that was cited a fair bit when honoring the fallen rescue workers of September 11th: "The firefighter performs one act of bravery in his career . . . when he takes the oath to be a firefighter. Everything else is in the line of duty." (I'm paraphrasing there; although I found many citations of this adage, I was unable to find an original source, if one exists.) This adage, of course, applies to many different fields: police officers, medics, soldiers . . . and astronauts. When you become an astronaut, you understand that to do so is to be aboard a vessel that consists of rocket fuel wrapped in aluminum; knowing and accepting those risks are acts of great courage . . . and thus heroic.
It is not death that is heroic, although it is often death that reminds us that there are heroes. And most heroes I've met - police, military, firefighters, astronauts - deny their own heroism . . . perhaps because they are merely doing what, in their hearts, they feel needs to be done; they may not be assembling a Fellowship to deal with the world's problems, but they are following a calling in their hearts that makes them work to better the world and our understanding of it. (I also tend to extend my definition of "heroism" and "courage" to encompass the unobvious: Remaining a teacher in a rough school district despite better offers and impossible conditions can involve as much sacrifice and dedication as being a police officer.) And some of the greatest heroes - such as parents, religious and community leaders, medical personnel and scientists - are quietly heroic, helping to solve problems and forge the future without problems, minimizing crises before they ever happen.
In an ideal world, we wouldn't need heroes. Homes wouldn't burn down, bad people wouldn't seek to harm others, and a venture into space would be no more perilous than a morning jog. But our world is not ideal. Our world is full of people who would break the law, buildings that burn, and scientific frontiers that remain -- no matter our efforts to romanticize and trivialize them - dangerous and untamed. We should mourn the losses of those who make the final sacrifice, and help honor their memories, but we should be careful not to equate the act of dying with being heroic itself. Heroism is an act of courage; sometimes living is the greatest act of courage of all.
* * *
As mentioned above, I'm undergoing some medical problems currently. I'm working to resolve them, but at present I'm spending a lot of time in pain, in bed wishing for the room to stop spinning, or otherwise unavailable; as such, I may be a bit slower than normal in replying to emails, responding in chats, and so on. I appreciate everyone's patience and understanding, and will hopefully be back to normal soon enough. (Or, at least, as normal as I ever am.)
Article publication date: February 7, 2003
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