Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Subway Hero

On January second of this year, Wesley Autrey jumped onto the tracks of a New York subway to save a man who had collapsed and fallen from the platform. Autrey, for his part, was rather modest about the whole thing; writing off any assertions that he did something remarkable, he visited the man in the hospital and went back to work.

Charles Colson's article at CERC makes a point I want to elaborate on a little:

While Autrey didn’t think that his actions were spectacular, other people did. At a time when most of the news is disheartening, Autrey’s actions inspired millions of people. Americans have become jaundiced and skeptical. We need heroes every now and then, a role model — and that’s what Autrey has become.

There's nothing wrong with recognizing that your actions might be considered objectively heroic because you put yourself at risk to accomplish something. In a way it's doubly heroic to do so under the assumption that saving lives is just what you're supposed to do, "I'm just doing my job, ma'am" cliches aside. When I first read the article, I was thinking it was kind of sad if we're so jaded that a small act of heroism can really inspire millions of people, if only briefly. Not that saving a man's life is small--Autrey's actions just made me speculate in that direction. Then I thought, while it might be sad in some ways that an isolated act of heroism by an ordinary person is newsworthy for seeming unusual, it's also great that we can inspire people at all with the most basic gestures of human charity, how natural it is for us to make some effort to help someone who really needs it and to make us all feel a little less lost, how easy it is to be made a little more willing to do something good for others in the future, even if it's just for a little while.

How often do we become disheartened because we look at the heroic actions of others and think "I could never do as much good as they do?" We never should. Most of us won't ever have an opportunity to make a single grand gesture of heroism, to save one life and inspire a million others in one fell swoop. It doesn't mean, though, that we can't make a difference. Most of us have our heroic moment smeared out into a million tiny events throughout our lives where we make a difference in the lives of a handful of people at a time. We may not get to take the mantle of inspiration and wear it in front of more people than we've directly helped (if even them), to serve as an example to everyone, but we can still help people around us, and still be a good example to them.

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