When we think of heroes, we usually think of superhuman figures, fictional or mythologized, from Achilles to Churchill, from Boudica to Superman, from Joan of Arc to James Bond. They are heroes because they are able to accomplish that which mere mortals cannot.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve discovered new kinds of heroes – nurses working with inadequate protection, care workers with exceptional dedication, bus drivers who continue to transport key workers.
Few of them would want to be described as heroes. Most would see themselves as ordinary people doing ordinary jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Many might suggest that most people in their place would do what they are doing. And they may be right in that.
What they show is that heroism is a very human attribute. It is expressed not in having an incomparable character or possessing superhuman abilities but in being human to the utmost. Heroism in everyday life is, from this perspective, an expression of our humanness.
It has become fashionable to denigrate humans as selfish or callous or egotistical. Many are. But many more are dedicated and compassionate and kind. Humans are far better than we often give ourselves credit for.
In celebrating the endeavours of nurses and care workers and bus drivers and cleaners and volunteers, and the myriad others working to pull us through these surreal times, we should not forget that many are forced to be heroic, through a lack of resources or poor conditions. Too often heroism is seen in the sacrifice, but not in the struggle against having to make a sacrifice. “When I give food to the poor”, the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara observed, “they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
An even shorter version of this is published in the Observer.