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The stories of the heroes who stepped up to help and in some cases save the victims of the Tucson tragedy keep rolling in. The first and most prominent was Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ college intern, Daniel Hernandez, the young man who helped her after she was shot. While many people call him a hero, Hernandez insists he is not one: “I think... anyone would have done the same thing for anyone, because it’s a human being, and you need to make sure that you help those in need.”
Then there is Patricia Maisch, the 61-year-old lady who managed to grab the shooter’s magazine and keep him from reloading. What does she remember about the events that happened so quickly? “That tiny, tiny space between the first shot and the rest of the shots, just in my head. And then deciding to drop to the ground instead of running, expecting to be shot because the woman next to me was the last one to get shot.” She doesn’t see herself as a hero, but if people persist in calling her one, then she insists on calling the man who saved her life a “superhero,” - Col. Bill Badger (Ret.), who wrestled alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner to the ground. But Badger too shies away from the hero’s honor: “I did what anybody else would do. And I’m just so glad that I had the opportunity to do what I did...”
Then there is Dr. David Bowman, the physician who was shopping in the Safeway when the killings took place and quickly rushed into the fray to help treat victims. Neither does he consider himself a hero: “I think that there were maybe heroic things done by normal people.”
And then there is Anna Ballis, who was, that fateful Saturday, simply going shopping and then went to Rep. Giffords’ event to see what was going on. Giffords’ district director, Ron Barber, owes his life to Ballis, who applied pressure to his wounds. If given the choice between being dubbed an angel or hero, Ballis prefers angel.
Extraordinary actions performed by seemingly ordinary people - some intended to attend the event; others were on their way to someplace else - responding to tragedy in the only way they knew how: instantly, compassionately, courageously.
We wonder how we would react in a similar situation. Would we be an Anna Ballis, a David Bowman, a Bill Badger, a Patricia Maisch, a Daniel Hernandez? Would we respond with similar acts of heroism?
Or would we, God forbid, be a George Constanza - the character in Seinfeld - who, in the episode, “The Fire,” runs out, abandoning the helpless and handicapped. No one is hurt, but George’s cowardice is exposed. The fireman asks him, “How do you live with yourself?” And George’s only explanation is, “It’s not easy.”
Funny, yes, but in real life we yearn for better. We wish for and anticipate within ourselves and others a heroic response, even as we hope that test never comes. We vicariously identify with the heroes at tragic events, whether it be a Ground Zero, a Virginia Tech campus, or a Tucson.
And isn’t that at least something of the reason for the resounding response to the President’s memorial service speech in Tucson? More than 14,000 gathered at the University of Arizona arena to say, “We mourn for the victims; we hate the evil; we celebrate the heroes because they represent the better part of ourselves - that part of ourselves that empowers the triumph of good over evil, of love over hate, of courage over cowardice.” And they interrupted the President’s 30-minute speech 50 times, often with thunderous applause, occasionally with laughter, and in the end with a standing ovation.
By living that better part of ourselves and seeing it in others, by speaking kinder, gentler words that heal rather than hurt, by living for Something beyond ourselves, we can in these daily actions nurture the hero within as we honor the fallen by helping the living.
True heroes do not aspire to be heroes. They are most often ordinary people who care about others. When we in those daily, ordinary, mundane occasions care, truly care about others, then in that unexpected moment - “that tiny, tiny space between the first shot and the rest of the shots” - the true hero within emerges. And even if that moment never comes, and we pray to God it doesn’t, as we quietly, anonymously, methodically do the right thing in obscure places, we ordinary people join the heroes of Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and Ground Zero - in the triumph of good over evil.
Editor’s note: Life Matters is written by David B. Whitlock, Ph.D. David’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website is davidbwhitlock.com.