I’m giving a talk to a Long Island library conference this Thursday and the theme is “everyday heroes.” I believe they asked me to come because I wrote about the trapped and rescued Chilean miners, whose story has an obvious link to the theme, but as I prepared my power point I began to realize that I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes recently. If we leave the realm of mythology, what is a hero, what makes someone into that paragon of courage? Once upon a time in literary criticism we used to talk about “man” (person) and “moment” and I like that because it really is the situation which creates the opportunity for heroism — but that decision, that choice to act, often does not at first look like what it becomes at the end. Being a hero is linked to being brave — and that choice to speak, to stand out, can come in many guises. Indeed while we all know the Hero’s Journey as a literary trope, it is probably the best way to think of all heroes: people who take one step, then another, then another, until they face the moment of decision for which they are famous. But that big moment would never happen without the small ones.
The key moment for the miners came shortly after they were trapped, when they decided to vote on everything. The choice to trust democracy, and thus one another, saved them. For Kelvin Brown, the Australian driller who was flown over to be the hero, the first choice came in deception — not letting the families see that he did not believe he could save the men. For Brandon Fisher, the Pennsylvania drill bit manufacturer, it was the choice to try to contact the Chilean government when he felt his drill could free the men much more quickly than the one at the mine. For Louis Post, the US Department of Labor official who stood up against the then attorney general in 1920 to demand legal proof that immigrants accused of being traitors actually were ready to harm the United States (in Master of Deceit), the choice came when he was asked to approve deportations based on flimsy or little evidence. He simply chose not to approve until he had proof — leading to a clash that could have cost him his job, but which he won.
Heroes are people who make a single choice to take the path of courage, and then accept the consequence — which often involve a next decision, and a next, and a next. Each brave step makes the next possible. I think we should point this out to young people — you don’t have to be magnificent, you don’t need to compare yourself to the grandest hero, just have the courage to take the first step.