January 30, 2015

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Heroism is not confined to national holidays or well-knowns

Cynthia DewesAt this time of the year, we seem to have lots of heroes to admire. We have Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, among others. And we know the stuff of heroism has to do with big events like expanding civil rights, or putting an end to systematic slavery, or forming a new nation based on Christian idealism.

We think of GIs earning the Congressional Medal of Honor by courting death in order to save others during World War II. We praise the fireman who rushes into a blazing building without protective gear in order to find a desperate survivor. Heroism is grand, involving superior people who surmount great obstacles to do noble things.

Well, not always. Over the years, it’s been my delight and pleasure to find heroism in more people and more events than one might expect. That’s because the true nature of heroism has to do with sensing not only one’s own needs, but also the needs of others—and then trying hard to do something about them.

It means working to make life better for us, for those we love, and sometimes for society as a whole. Unrecognized heroism happens often in daily life and deserves our grateful attention.

My latest candidate for “hero” is a young man I met in the grocery store. He was stocking the frozen foods aisle when I came along looking for pea pods to use in a stir fry dish. He was tall and could read (and reach) the top items, and once he knew what I was looking for he persisted in searching everywhere for it.

I was ready to give up and plan another meal, but he wasn’t. He even went back to look in the warehouse. Finally, he said, “Do you mean sugar snap peas?” and identified their place on the top shelf. Unfortunately, the store was out of them. But it didn’t end there.

A bit later, I lost my clutch of grocery coupons, and my Depression childhood kicked in. I simply had to find them before I paid the bill, so I went up and down every aisle looking for them. I met the same young man as before, and again he offered to help. Guess what? He found the coupons.

Indeed, he was my hero that day. He was not just being a good employee helping out an old lady. Rather, he was genuinely kind, attentive and interested in my problems and how we could deal with them. He was not dismissive of my age, or my relatively unimportant concerns.

The heroism in all this is the attitude the young man embodied: He was motivated by something greater than his own interests. He wasn’t trying to earn “Employee of the Month” or higher wages, the admiration of passersby, or even my approval. He was simply doing the right thing, which is what heroes do.

The saints are all heroes in some way, too. And, like my young friend, their heroism is not always defined by big displays. St. Joan of Arc fought on battlefields for France, but St. Therese of the Infant Jesus took the “little way” of simply praying for, and loving, others in her own small place.

Heroism may or may not be a grand gesture. But whether we recognize it or not, heroism is a matter of seeing Christ in everyone we meet. Just another example of God’s grace made manifest.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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