Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Makes a Hero?

I'm blogging over at Write in the Shadows today about heroism in honor of the upcoming 9/11 anniversary.

My 9/11 memories are fuzzy.


I was already at work when the first tower was hit, and only found out something was going on after the second. My dad was in the last downward spiral of COPD, and would die within a couple of weeks. That was taking most of my personal attention and about all the emotion I could muster. Then, as my coworkers gathered around a small TV in someone’s office to watch the 9/11 drama unfold, I was called to the university president’s office to start crafting a strategy for what the university could do for its students from New York and DC, and writing a speech for him to give at an afternoon convocation to help our students put the whole thing in perspective. I wrote about it all week, working long hours. I missed all of the TV coverage except in small spurts over a quick dinner as I worked late hours. I then went to my hometown to watch my father die. For me, 9/11 is a blur, like a movie I watched from a distance.

I missed most of the shared consciousness of 9/11. The first time I really thought consciously of what makes a real-life hero came after Hurricane Katrina. THAT tragedy, I didn’t miss.

In fiction, our heroes are usually strong macho guys (or women) with overwhelming sex appeal. They are larger than life, can figure a way out of any dire predicament, and do it while cursing like a sailor.

Real-life heroes, I learned, are not like that. They might be old, or young. Handsome, or not. They don’t have blind courage or superpowers. What they have is integrity, some solid inner core that, when tested, hardens and refines. My hero was Scott, a university president who, faced with a demolished campus and students and faculty scattered across the continent, swallowed his fear and despair to wade his way back into the void to save his university. My hero was Irene, who at age 80, with her family home in ruins, was sitting resolutely in a church pew in New Orleans six weeks after the hurricane and helping other people. My heroes don’t even know they were heroes.

I think that’s what we all admire about the 9/11 rescue workers as well. Firefighters and police officers who were probably scared as hell, but sucked it up and did their jobs. Who lost loved ones and colleagues, but set their panic and fear and grief aside and did what they were sworn to do.

That’s a hero.

3 comments:

  1. Goodness, Suz, you've made me tear up. What a moving post. Thank you for sharing it.

    In my work, I get to meet heroes every day. But one person I'll never forget flew to the Turks and Caicos two days after a hurricane struck and one day before a second struck. When every one else was trying to get out, she was looking for ways to get in and help people survive. And when I was interviewing her afterward and asked how she could sit on that plane knowing she'd arrive a few hours before a hurricane, she shrugged and said, "I can't not do it. I couldn't sit at home and watch it on TV. Not when I have the skills to help."

    Truly a hero.

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  2. My husband used to work in the part of the Pentagon that got hit. Fortunately for us, he'd changed jobs about a year before.

    One of friends, though, was still there. He suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns to go back in and help others get out.

    I worked at Dulles Airport at the time. It was a strange and surreal time.

    Thanks for the lovely post.

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  3. Thanks, guys. This has made me really think about heroes in our books, and what should make them heroes. I'm thinking a few characters might need to change a little :-)

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