Impulse 76: Board Notes


Mark Laskow

Perhaps there are some everyday takeaways in the stories of the Carnegie heroes. Not something that will send you running into a burning building or plunging into swift, icy waters, but a way to recognize smaller, quieter actions.

When I discuss the Carnegie heroes with people, they often wonder whether they could perform such acts themselves. I certainly wonder that about myself! This “what if” speculation can be a great personal mental exercise to examine our own moral and physical condition. But today, let’s do something different, let’s turn the exercise upside down. Instead of imagining yourself a witness to life threatening peril and what it would take to save another person, imagine instead recognizing ordinary acts of everyday heroism.

First, what is “everyday heroism”? Look for people who make a serious sacrifice to do something important for another. The sacrifice should be well beyond mere inconvenience but short of risking life and limb in a rescue. (If you see one of those, call the Hero Fund right away!) Let me give you some examples:

In a group of women, most of them begin bullying one of the members, and it turns mean. One member, acting alone and without help from any of the others, steps up and demands that the harassment stop. The group focuses its wrath on the defender, but she deflects the attack away from the original victim.

A group of men are enjoying drinks when the social leader of the group begins to tell a series of ugly racial jokes. One of the younger men, who had only recently been invited to join the group, quietly objects. The leader tells him he need not join them again, but most of the members are abashed, and the conversation changes course to a more pleasant direction.

On a rainy night a householder hears an unusual noise outside and goes out to check. Through the sound of the downpour, she hears the cry of a puppy. It takes ten minutes but, soaked and chilled to the bone, she returns the pup to its nearby home.

Each Good Samaritan had to pay a price for their good deed. None was obligated to act. Each acted when no one else did. These are key requirements for the Carnegie Hero Medal. What is different is that there was no risk of dying or, in the last case, that the victim was an animal rather than a human. Notice that in the first two cases the good actors were speaking up against a crowd, not joining it in some outcry.

What I am suggesting is that if you see or hear of acts like these, after a bit of thought, you could approach the “everyday hero” and tell them you noticed and appreciated what they did. “Thank you for your service,” if you will. You might feel a little social discomfort if they are strangers, but if they are I think your thanks will mean even more. I have been on the receiving end of thanks like this, and I know I appreciated it. You will notice that you are not tasked to be the hero in these situations any more than the Carnegie Hero Fund. We all just observe, report, and thank.

These small acts of everyday courage are part of the fabric of a kind and civil society. Recognizing and thanking these everyday heroes strengthens that fabric and might also reinforce our own willingness to act if we ever find ourselves uncomfortable in the face of bad behavior. That could happen and it’s much more likely than being called on to make a daring rescue in a burning building. Let’s use the example of Carnegie heroes to make it more likely that we ourselves can and will respond to perform one of these small but hard acts that make our society better.