“What?” I asked him. I didn’t really understand his answer.
“A hero. I always wanted to be a hero,” he replied.
It was 2002, and my brother Daniel had been fighting his cancer for almost five years. He had been diagnosed as stage 4 when it was discovered and had spread from his prostate to his bones and organs. He had a pretty good remission, but the cancer came roaring back, and it was clear what the outcome would be.
We were fishing that afternoon like we did a lot those days, having a beer, talking. I asked him what it felt like, what he was thinking because he looked so pensive at that moment. And he gave me that answer.
It’s been more than 16 years, and his answer has stuck in my mind.
I have since discovered many things about heroes. My brother’s wish was not uncommon. We want to believe that our lives have impacted others. We want to be remembered.
I heard a TED talk from an emergency medical technician who shared his experience dealing with people in life-threatening situations, some facing certain death as a result of accidents or health issues. His training was to give all victims hope, even if death was imminent.
But over time, he thought this unfair, and if death seemed certain, he would tell them the truth. To his surprise, almost all had an acceptance that he did not expect.
And after acceptance, many voiced that they wished they had done more with their lives or expressed regret about not doing more with family or people they loved, and they hoped to have made a positive impact on others.
The Carnegie Hero Foundation, which recognizes those who perform heroic acts, defines a hero as “someone who voluntarily leaves a point of safety and risks their life to an extraordinary degree to save the life of another person.”
One award recipient, Wesley James Autrey, saw a stranger with a medical condition fall off a platform onto the tracks directly in the path of an oncoming train in 2007. His young daughters at his side, Autrey immediately jumped on the tracks to aid the unresponsive man. When he realized they couldn’t make it back to the platform, he pulled the man to the ground as hard as he could and the train passed over the top of them.
Asked what made him risk his life for a perfect stranger, Autrey said he felt he was put on Earth for that situation. A voice told him, “You can do this.”
Strangely enough, research shows that moral reasoning, empathy or religious beliefs have little bearing on whether a person becomes this type of hero. Many of these people see the situation and act, recounting after the fact: “I don’t even remember thinking about it. Suddenly, there I was, in the middle of it.” They said, “I can do this.”
The Talmud says those who save a life, save the world. Jesus said, “Those who would be the greatest among you, would be your servant.” Perhaps many of us think that just as there is a secret to happiness, there is a secret to becoming a hero.
There is no secret. We all have the ability within us. To touch the life of another, to make a difference for the better in others is within the reach of us all. We just need to find the strength to say, “I can do this.”
I recently heard a story about a young man who lived on a wildlife refuge in Africa. He and his brother watched the annual migration of animals and made a game out of guessing which animals would survive by noting the health and other social factors they knew about the animals.
One day, a baby female elephant with bad hips that made her walk almost sideways appeared. The brothers gave her a month at most to survive.
But the winter migration came and she was still there. Spring migration, there she was again, notable because her hips shook so hard they called her “Elvis.”
Every year, she beat the odds, returning despite the expectation that natural selection would eliminate her. Curious at her longevity, they followed her.
They observed the herd drinking at a water hole that had very steep sides, and after drinking, she was unable to climb out. Immediately, two young male elephants pushed her from behind until she was out of the hole.
Later, when everyone was feeding, her lame hips kept her from reaching as high for branches as the others, so the matriarchs of the herd piled food for her on the ground.
The brothers noticed that this herd also moved noticeably slower than other herds and determined that they all moved slower so the female could keep up. There was little to be gained for the herd except more work and her company. Do animals do this without consideration or is altruism endemic in all animals?
Heroes in our world don’t make movies. They don’t beat their chests and announce their status. We know who they are and we give them that title.
In return, they go about their business touching the lives of others for the better — quietly, anonymously and generously.
I told my brother that heroes just happen, that heroes don’t really get to choose, and most people dubbed heroes would rather not have been faced with the challenge that earned them the label.
My brother Daniel facing his own death with grace, humility and an unbounded sense of humor was a model of courage to me.
I have my own heroes, imperfect and human, but displaying great fortitude.
They are John and Bobby Kennedy, St. Francis of Assisi, and my brother Daniel.