NRL News

Heroic in every way that matters

by | Aug 20, 2018

By Dave Andrusko

We had been meaning for months to watch “The 15:17 to Paris,” the Clint Eastwood directed film about three American heroes who foiled a terrorist attack on a French train. The film received very mixed reviews largely because the three men– Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, none of whom were professional actors—played themselves. (And because their back stories weren’t exciting enough for critics. Sigh.)

This recalled for me a story I read that followed the actual act of heroism in 2015. It was titled “The Trick to Acting Heroically” (although “trick” is a complete misnomer). “WHAT causes people to risk their lives to help strangers?,” Erez Yoeli and David Rand ask.

The jumping off point for the piece in the New York Times was Sadler’s, Stone’s, and Skarlatos’s remarkable bravery in thwarting the attack on the train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris.

So, why do people act so bravely? And why so often when they act heroically say (as one of the three men did), “It was just gut instinct,” “It wasn’t really a conscious decision”?

The authors tell us

After collecting interviews given by 51 recipients and evaluating the transcripts, we found that the heroes overwhelming described their actions as fast and intuitive, and virtually never as carefully reasoned. …

We found almost no examples of heroes whose first impulse was for self-preservation but who overcame that impulse with a conscious, rational decision to help.

It is striking that our brute instincts, rather than our celebrated higher cognitive faculties, are what lead to such moral acts. But why would anyone ever develop such potentially fatal instincts?

“Brute instincts”? Let’s say I would use a different characterization. But to move on…

They first offer the kinds of explanations that stress what the heroic actor “gets” out of it, beginning with everyday considerations. You get repaid in kind down the road for little things, or you get a good reputation that advances your prospects.

But these are small potatoes, little cost, even less risk.

“For heroic instincts to arise this way, the benefits must ultimately outweigh the costs — including the risk of the very rare but very dangerous situation (e.g., subduing a gunman),” they write.

And then they ask the question, “Do they in fact outweigh the costs?” Or, perhaps better put for our purposes, in what way do they outweigh the cost?

They go on to explore what you might learn from a game theory model. ”Envelope game” involves two players. It’s too long to go into at length here but the gist is that “instinctive helping beats stopping to think” under three conditions. The last two are of interest to us, namely

(2) If Player 1 doesn’t help, this is really harmful to Player 2; and

(3) The long-term relationship is valuable to Player 1.

At the end, they conclude

Every day, decent folk do good. But as the recent heroics in France remind us, heroes don’t just do good — they do good instinctively.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the conclusion. Is it that mere “decent folk” will do good after a risks/benefit calculation while heroes (those risking their lives) do so without a first thought, let alone a second thought?

Let me apply this to the hardy folks that make up our Movement and those we seek to protect.

Unless we (Player 1) attempt to stand up for the vulnerable elderly and the defenseless unborn (Player 2), there is real harm to them. And there may not even be a relationship–you and I likely will never know the people whose lives are saved because we passed protective legislation–but that does not mean they are not important to us.

They are!

Think of it another way. With the rise of physician-assisted suicide, in a sense we can all say our lives are (eventually) at risk, at least potentially. But there are countless vulnerable elderly people already at risk. We protect them by fending off laws that would expose them to harm and by challenging courts when they go astray.

But we also do so by being there for them, day in and day out, acts which are not the same as fending off a thickly armed terrorist on a train but heroic in their own way.

We also protect them from the bean counters who would not “waste” medical resources on the elderly. I have in mind a book I once listened to as I drove into work.

“The Theft of Memory,” by Jonathan Kozol, is about his father, from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease to Dr. Harry Kozol’s slow descent into dementia. The son’s incredibly loyalty and faithfulness to his father (and to his mother) is a reminder to us all.

Second, just because a challenge does not come in the form of a split-second decision to fearlessly take on a gun-wielding man doesn’t mean it is any the less heroic.

Kozol, it would seem, instinctively knew he must care for his father and mother, even though the “burdens” in time and money and emotional investment were enormous. But he was there for his parents for years and years and years.

An “instinctive” decision? Anything but. It was an act of will that Kozol consciously made each and every day as his parents’ already poor health ever-so-gradually declined.

For my money, the decades-long faithfulness of the people who make up our Movement–in season and out, during good times and bad–is heroic in every sense that counts.

Categories: Life
Tags: hero