We’re All Heroes Now

Or perhaps I should say, potentially heroes. Time was when to be a hero meant one of two things: one was either very, very brave or one came from the world of Greek myth where a certain low cunning could cheerfully co-exist with nobility of character. Nowadays, it is a little more complicated. The definition of ‘hero’ has been enlarged but it has also undergone some sea-changes. What we call Judaeo-Christian morality has intervened, making it difficult to applaud those whose sense of right and wrong is notably elastic. On the one hand we expect our heroes to be men and women of substance, with some moral backbone, but then again, we don’t, or rather, we apply our criteria selectively. It is usually enough that our heroes should have done something we consider remarkable or worthy of attention. We can now become heroes by being generous (good), doing our duty (good), achieving something judged great (good-ish), or simply surviving long enough for no-one to be able to find any other word to describe us (hmn).

My father often remarked that many men who fought during World War II were not heroes, but they did their duty, whether bravely or fearfully. He singled out for particular praise the stretcher-bearers and ambulance drivers who faced death daily in the service of others but were not universally regarded as heroic. I think we would all see them differently now. It takes a special kind of courage to go on, day after day, taking huge risks for others.

Tonight, as the nation claps for the NHS, we will be applauding those of our own time risking their lives to save others, but perhaps we should also be asking whether we are clapping and calling NHS staff ‘heroes’ to let ourselves off the hook. Are we indulging in a kind of mass sentimentality that makes us feel good but leaves the people we are applauding in exactly the same position they were before, often feeling badly treated and taken for granted? Call someone a ‘hero’ and we place on them the burden of being ‘heroic’. Should we really be doing that? What can we do to ensure that our tribute to the NHS is more than just empty noise?

I would suggest that we could each ask ourselves these questions. Are we fully co-operating with the measures intended to protect everyone from COVID-19? Are we accepting the restraints put on us with generosity and goodwill?* For the Benedictines among us, and those inspired by the Rule of St Benedict, are we grumbling or doing our best to encourage others during this time of uncertainty and difficulty? Are we being kind? Are we putting others and their needs first? Are we being Christ-bearers? In other words, are we being heroes in the modern, extended sense or are we expecting others to be heroic on our behalf? I wonder.

Audio Version

*That doesn’t mean accepting things uncritically. It does mean no moaning or trying to get round regulations just because it suits us — organized selfishness in other words.

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17 thoughts on “We’re All Heroes Now”

  1. For some years I have lamented the attenuation of the term “hero”. It has come to denote, as your forebearer rightly said, someone doing their duty. Whilst it might be a generous attribution, it along with many other words over-employed in modern vocabulary, leaves us with a vacuum as to what we call those, who with no thought for self, place themselves in situations most of us would never be called to respond to. It also suggests that to do one’s duty, or to shoulder one’s burdens, is a thing of marvel in itself, and that I believe, is symptomatic of a world that now expects affirmation simply for being. Thank you for tackling this subject

    • I checked contemporary definitions of the word ‘hero’ in the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries, as well as the Online Dictionary, before writing because I had instinctively reacted rather like you. It does indeed seem we can all be heroes nowadays, but it does leave us without a word for those who are outstanding for valour.

  2. Thank you, dear Sister Catherine, for this thoughtful piece.
    Heroes may be a misnomer for all our NHS and social care workers, who have been struggling with work and day to day life for many years before this dreaded virus visited itself upon us all. Ten years of austerity and neglect have left the health and social care sector woefully unprepared and undervalued.
    Also many of those who keep these sectors going are first or second generation immigrants, who are too often vilified by the right wing as undesirables. Even more than ever, we need to recognise that we are all God’s children, whoever we may be, wherever we come from, whatever colour, creed or gender.
    God bless and keep you and yours safe. God bless all who work in the NHS and social care, the key workers keeping us fed and everyone trying to make lockdown work effectively. Peace and love be with you all.

    • I agree, Tim, that often we don’t value people as we ought. I’m just not sure whether calling them ‘heroes’ is a clumsy way of trying to express gratitude or a way of avoiding our own responsibilitytowards others.

  3. I read this and then listened to your pod cast. The writing was, as ever, very good and provided much food for thought and introspection. However, your pod cast was even better. You have a very good voice for radio (and I write with some experience in this field) and it is a shame that you are not more widely listened to. Thought for the day on Radio 4 should snap you up. Of course, this might be all fresh air from me, and you have appeared many times already.

  4. I agree so much with what you have written. I am a nurse working in a hospital clinic and consider that I am just doing my job. Sometimes I feel scared to go to work, sometimes bored and fed up, sometimes it is ok. I am not actively looking after Covid patients but some of my colleagues are. They don’t behave like heroes at all. It is nice that people want to clap for the NHS but I just feel that when this is over so many people will simply be forgotten again and overlooked. People like the 2 ladies who come every evening and clean the whole clinic area/changing rooms and corridors. They are on one of the lowest pay grades yet their work is absolutely vital. Like the security people who ‘police’ the hospital entrances, often dealing with upset and anxious people. They show such patience and tolerance. The label ‘hero’ is a heavy one to lay around someone’s neck.
    It requires you to live up to it, which is sometimes very difficult.

    • Thank you, Sue. At the moment, everyone is clapping and cheering for you (and, I think, the ‘invisible’ people who do the cleaning and supplying and all the other jobs) but it mustn’t be an excuse fo the rest of us to do nothing or to be quiescent about pay and conditions or anything else. It really upset me, just after the Brexit vote went through, to hear from some people in one of the hospitals I attend how badly they had been treated by patients. Praying for you and all your colleagues, with gratitude and appreciation.

  5. Thank you for that blog – thoughtful and perceptive and, hence, challenging. You’re so right – what is each of us doing to ensure that we don’t become part of the problems?!

  6. What you say about our being let off the hook – in that we have no further responsibility towards those NHS workers beyond clapping them- is so spot on. I have to admit that I am full of admiration for a journalist, with whom I previously would have had no truck at all, and why? The journalist in question is Piers Morgan, and the reason for my volte face is that when, despite loud ragings on his part, NHS staff who had to drive to work could still face enormous parking fines for parking in London without permits or reserved places, he offered to pay those fines personally. It had the effect of removing all such threats. I call that putting your money where your mouth is. And accepting responsibility for others‘ wellbeing.

  7. Thank you
    Have been concerned too that the clapping (rare here even though my neighbour is a nurse ) could become one of our weekly feel good factors until next week . I am weary of listening to all the moans about boredom , unfairness of lockdown , when will it be over so we can get back to normal . ? For the families who have lost loved ones . 26.000 and still rising , there will be a new normal of grief and pain . For those who nursed and comforted the dying ,because families could not , there will be a huge emotional cost undoubtedly felt for a very long time .
    There are signs emerging of increased traffic , increased numbers in shops , flouting of social distancing . Organised selfishness is a spot on description.
    Forgive this cliche but our parents and grandparents were asked to go to war , we have been asked to stay at home and sit on the couch so let’s pray that we might do so with stoicism , uncomplaining , and using the time to reach out to others giving what encouragement and comfort we can where it is needed . Giving thanks for every day we and our loved ones are virus free . Every day that the death toll decreases .
    And when we finally return to our new normality whatever that will look like , let us with humility remember that clapping will not be enough .It does not let us off the hook now , nor will it ever

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