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.
*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.