History, for individuals like myself, is a melancholy tapestry woven in threads of struggle and laziness; success and failure; joy and sorrow; heroism and cowardice – the entire gamut of the human experience. Consequently, I view commemorative events, like Memorial Day, with very mixed emotions. I often think we civilians tend to abuse the word “hero.” Joining the military does not necessarily make one a hero. Dying in a senseless act of murder, like the horrific destruction of the World Trade Center, does not necessarily constitute heroism. Dying in a tragic accident does not necessarily translate into heroism.
Heroism involves doing something extraordinary in the face of insurmountable odds and, often, at the risk of one’s own life or career. I often think we civilians use the word to assuage our private guilt over having not served ourselves. Heroes often find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and do what is right, nonetheless.
Who are my heroes?
My Mom, Rita Marie Priest, who protected us from a very hostile home environment, who clung to her faith in the face of mockery, and who saved our lives by divorcing our father despite facing excommunication from the church she loved.
My grandmother, Florence Beryl Tresselt, who despite being married to a man of very questionable character, persevered, raised us to do what was right, and taught us to never blame God for what happened to us.
Corpsmen and medics, who in the face of certain death, and put their own safety aside to save the lives of the wounded.
Those disabled persons, who despite debilitating physical conditions, struggle every day to overcome their circumstances, and who encourage those around them to savor every day of life.
Those men and women in the military, law enforcement, and public safety who, in the face of possible injury or death protect and save those in peril, most of whom they do not know.
Teachers, who during the performance of their “normal” routine have died or been injured while trying to save their colleagues and/or students from eminent peril.
Parents and guardians, who willingly give of themselves, their hearts, their time, and love to their children, knowing that it may never be reciprocated.
Politicians, who, regardless of political affiliation, and despite knowing that their stance will, in all likelihood, cost them their careers, do what is right for those whom they represent and for their country. Those individuals seem to be in short supply today.
Those plagued with mental illness, and who are struggling every day to deal with life, who do not wallow in self-pity and who fight its loneliness and stigma with determination, humor, and dignity.
Real heroes will be the last ones to recognize themselves as being heroic. They will often answer queries as to why they did what they did with – “someone had to do it” – they “did not think about it,” they just “did it” – “it was the right thing to do.” Heroism comes from within and is born out of necessity and genuine love. Many heroes recognize the bravery of others while denying their own. I suppose, it is like “beauty in the eyes of the beholder.” The swan, which still sees itself as the ugly duckling. Heroes do not ask to be heroes. Circumstances compel them to step forward.
So, on Memorial Day, remember those who touched your life in a very special way. Pay attention to the personal heroes as well as the famous ones. Remember those extraordinarily special people in your life who have sacrificed and endured so much to make your life safer and better because it was the right thing to do.