It's election season. That means that television and radio programs are interrupted far too often by politicians and their backers touting their own boldness, their ability "to stand up" for fill in the blank. Just as often someone on the other side will call their opponent a coward or imply that they "stay seated" when an issue is on the line. In this context, the boasts of heroism and bravery fall flat, just as the barbs of cowardice have little bite. Applied to politicians who "dared" to vote for a watered-down bill because the political cost of doing so had been deemed "acceptable," the bar on these pronouncements is increasingly lowered to the point where words like "hero" and "coward" have nearly lost meaning.
On September 21, 2010 NPR's All Things Considered aired a piece about Eileen Nearne who died in the southern England town of Devon on September 2nd at the age of 89. According to NPR:
Posing as a French shop girl, she helped coordinate supply lines and weapons drops in advance of the D-Day invasion that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe. Nearne stayed on the job until the Nazis caught her in July 1944, and sent her to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She later escaped after being sent to a smaller nearby camp.
The program also noted that very few of the people in Nearne's life knew about her wartime activities. Said her niece, "My aunt Eileen was a very private and modest person, and without doubt she would be astounded by all the public and media attention."
Hearing this story made me wonder about the number of people walking amongst us right now who have been responsible for some act of heroism of which the rest of us are unaware. What makes a person keep such things to themselves while others forge nominal accomplishments into a heroic pedigree? Wouldn't true heroes want a their actions to be public pieces of their personal narratives? Perhaps they keep their silence because they don't see their actions as heroic. Perhaps they assume that anyone finding themselves in similar circumstances would have done the same. Perhaps, but it should be noted that we also have far too many examples of people who were in a position to help others and chose a different path.
Sometimes people keep their silence because the circumstances of their heroism are too painful to recall. My Grandfather died about thirteen years ago. I knew he had been a World War II veteran, and facilitated by advanced age and Alzheimer's Disease, I occasionally watched him relive some of the more harrowing moments from his time in the European Theatre. There was one episode he kept to himself however, one mission that even age and dementia couldn't pry out of him. He told no one, and as a result no one knew until he died that he had been in an Army Unit responsible for liberating one of the many Nazi Concentration Camps.
My family made this discovery when my Mother and her sister opened an Army footlocker that had always been off-limits to anyone but my Grandfather. In there, amidst the other mementos of war was an unassuming photo journal. Thinking they would find pictures of my Grandfather and his war years inside, they opened it to discover instead heart-rending images of people behind barricades and barbed wire who looked like barely-corporeal ghosts of human beings.
I don't know which camp this was, nor do I know what became of any of the men in the photos. I don't know why he made an album, but I would guess that documenting the horror served an evidentiary purpose, as well as a type of mental expurgation. What I do know is that a group of men, who had already seen death and suffering beyond anything I can imagine, were called on again to take actions to redeem humanity from the atrocities created by some of its number.
In these days of bold political boasts, of obnoxious and hollow pronouncements about freedom I think about these two World War heroes, who saw their own as well as the freedom and lives of others obliterated. I think about the fact that both took corrective actions and that both kept those actions mostly to themselves. It is my assumption that for them, like an untold number of other heroes, heroism must be a deeply personal act, a private communion of person and possibility.
In posting these musings, I am making a plea to raise the bar -- to ask politicians who said or did little as real change became possible, yet continue to deify themselves in jingoistic and bombastic campaign ads, to consider with whom they will be compared. The congressperson who crows about his doomed support of an issue which he knew had no chance of passing and cost him no real political ground to back only to paint himself as a self-righteous martyr, should feel like a fool proclaiming his virtue to a world full of people who engaged in real tests of bravery and satisfied themselves simply with the knowledge that they had done their duty.
Take a position that benefits your constituents more than yourself. Govern like you have no fear of losing your job. Consider people and communities who can't pay for your ads, but can benefit from your leadership, then talk to us about heroism and courage. Only then will you have some experience of what they are.