Board notes: ‘Small’ moral choices prepare heroes for the big mortal one

departing presidentBy Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

—From “The Big Short”

There are number of things about the Carnegie Hero Fund that fascinate almost everyone, especially the question of why the heroes do what they do.  Is the heroic impulse “nature” or “nurture?”  If it is “nurture,” what is the source?  Family, religion, education, or culture?

About 15 years ago I gave a speech in which I tried to step outside the nature-vs.-nurture debate and consider another dimension of “why heroism?”  Our popular culture regularly produces stories, usually movies, in which the lead character leads a hapless and carelessly selfish life.  One day a great problem arises involving great harm to another person or community that can only be avoided by a great, selfless act by our character.  Will he or she rise above the habit of a mediocre lifetime and meet the challenge?  It makes a better movie if they do, so you know how it usually turns out there.  But in real life?

I’ve also found some loftier support for this view in the opening of a hymn my boys sang regularly in grade school:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Young voices singing these words can bring tears to your eyes, and I do believe that grace can bring redemption to an indifferent life.  But is this what caused our nearly 10,000 Carnegie Heroes to risk their lives, often when others nearby did not act?

Another theory is that many of our heroes had developed a habit, consistently if not perfectly, of making small moral choices as presented by everyday life.  When a waitress leaves an extra bill in the change, they put it right back on the table.  If they find a wallet, they pull their mobile phone out and begin dialing.  You get the idea.  They have the habit in these things of moving to action, the right action, without requiring a lot of thought.  You can’t really practice for the big heroic rescue, complete with serious risk to your life.  After all, the recipients of the Carnegie Medal represent just 3/1000th of one percent of the current population, even less of the total population over the medal’s 112-year history.  But all of us face many of these smaller choices in the course of our lives.  I believe that if a study could be done, we would find that our Carnegie Heroes routinely get these things right, without a lot of overthinking.  They are more ready than most for their big day…and how lucky for those they rescue.

Now, what about that opening quote from the 2015 film, The Big Short?  This winter I worshiped with a group of Quakers, which we did in a borrowed Christian Science church.  As I often do when visiting, I picked up a hymnal and thumbed through to see if the locals sang my favorite hymns.  (This is what passes for theology in my life!)  I was startled to turn to one of my favorites and read this line:

Oft to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide…

“Oft!?” It was supposed to be “Once!”  I was in a panic.  I had so often not just quoted that line but made it the pivot point of a presentation.  “Oft” implied a different point, albeit one that supported my own view.  Immediately I choked on Twain’s words.  I had been betrayed by what I knew for sure, but just wasn’t so.

Google saved me.  It seems that Mary Baker Eddy was a careful, detail-oriented woman.  Before she released traditional Christian hymns for use in her new Christian Science church, she tweaked the lyrics into compliance with her theology.  She too thought it more important to emphasize life’s smaller but important challenges.  That’s nice.  Few of us will ever face the mortal challenges our heroes faced to win the Carnegie Medal.  All of us can daily meet those smaller daily challenges presented in our lives, the very kind I think helped prepare our Carnegie Heroes for their big day.

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