As reports continue to come in of medical professionals thrust into the frontlines of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, communities around the country have stepped up the efforts to publicly recognize these individuals for their sacrifice and courage.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, the local Fox TV station has begun a series honoring the efforts of community members who are so selflessly putting the needs of others above their own self-interest. In one segment, they honored local Asheboro City Schools social workers for their work around the clock to ensure the most vulnerable students in their district are getting the materials, food and support they need while having to work remotely. In another, they honored the dispatchers at the Randolph County 911 Center.
The Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, has instituted a similar series to honor local heroes. Among those recognized is Brian Bittner, the director of emergency management for Penn State, for his efforts in leading university’s response efforts.
As noted by The New York Times, at a Bronx hospital emergency room, Utah nurse Lynne Hewett recently joined the fight to treat the onslaught of New Yorkers who have contracted the coronavirus. Hewett flew to New York City a couple of weeks ago to work on the frontlines. She earlier served as an emergency room nurse in New York after 9/11 and in a similar capacity in Haiti after the earthquake.
“There’s not enough staff to have a break and regroup; it’s nonstop. You’re trying to do one person, then you turn around and hear, ‘You’ve got another code next door,'” she tells the Times.
Such stress is the new norm in this monumental moment in time. While much of the current attention is focused on health care professionals, the work of other essential workers —social workers, volunteers, sanitation personnel, grocery store clerks, truck drivers — must be acknowledged.
For this is a time for heroes. Lord knows we need them. As Thomas Paine, a hero of another troubling time in our nation’s history, once put it, “These are the times that try men’s souls … He that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Elaine Kinsella is a psychology professor at the University of Limerick in Ireland who has extensively researched the role of heroes in society. “During a crisis, heroes come to the forefront because many of our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning and purpose, self-esteem, and sense of belonging with others,” she recently told the Times. “Heroes help to fulfill, at least in part, some of these basic human needs,” she added. In describing what constitutes a hero, tennis great Arthur Ashe once wrote: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
I have always been greatly influenced by straight talking, no-nonsense American movie heroes, especially John Wayne and Steve McQueen (who became a friend). They certainly influenced the choices I would make when I decided to become an actor. But the truth is in the many heroic roles I have played during my career — from law enforcement or military figures to a certain Texas Ranger — I have always drawn upon the acts of courage, large and small, I have witnessed in men and women with whom I have served during my time in the Air Force or have had the pleasure of meeting since. Whatever the branch of service, I was always proud to have the opportunity to wear that uniform with honor and gratitude. I have never really stopped to consider what it is that makes a hero. It is worth reflecting upon.
Kendra Cherry has a master’s degree and is a writer, consultant and public speaker on the subject of mental health. Writing on the subject of the psychology of heroism for the website Verywell Mind, she notes how heroes are deeply valued across all cultures.
There are two key factors that underlie grand acts of heroism according to Cherry: risk-taking and generosity. “People who risk their lives in the service of another are naturally more likely to take greater risks and they also possess a great deal of compassion, kindness, empathy, and altruism,” she says.
“While researchers know a great deal about what causes people to perform actions described as evil, our understanding of what makes people heroes is not quite so clear,” she writes. “Definitions of heroism may differ from person to person.”
According to Scott Allison and George Goethals, authors of “Our Definition of ‘Hero,'” heroes are believed to possess eight traits. They are smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable and inspiring. “It’s unusual for a hero to possess all eight of these characteristics,” they write, “But most heroes have a majority of them.”
“These same situational forces that galvanize some individuals to heroic acts can actually impede others from helping,” writes Cherry. “When a crisis arises in the presence of many people, we often fall into a trap of inaction by assuming that someone else will offer assistance, a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. Because personal responsibility is diffused by the presence of others, we believe that someone else will take on the role of the hero.”
Adds Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, “Each of us may possess the capacity to do terrible things. But we also possess an inner hero; if stirred to action, that inner hero is capable of performing tremendous goodness for others.”