The Two People: Hero and Not

Courtesy of The Cut.

Time to gauge whether I’m a weirdo, or if this is a common scenario.

You’re sitting in the classroom, and for whatever reason, the teacher’s lecture isn’t connecting with you, so your mind wanders. You start imagining a gunman walks through the open classroom door. Maybe you even spotted him before anyone else because of your mind-wandering. You try to alert everyone, if not at least the ones nearest you. You imagine that you pick up a chair, or it’s one of those chair-desk conjoined pieces of furniture, or maybe you’re in one of those enormous lecture halls and the only thing you have to fling at the gunman is your laptop or your heavy bookbag, but whatever it is, that is how you will be the hero in this fantastical scenario: using a makeshift weapon to momentarily distract the gunman to allow people to escape, to survive. People are running, people are cowering under their desks, gunfire is loud and disruptive, but through it, your mind is still clear, still active, still thinking ahead. Maybe, if you’re daring enough with your imagination in this scenario, you even get shot in your attempt to play hero, but you have the sardonic courage (and it is actually believable) of the guard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and you think, “Tis but a scratch. It’s just a flesh wound.” And so, you manage to survive to tell the story, and to become one of those survivors you’ve only seen on TV, on Twitter, in Google searches, and on Wikipedia pages. But it’s not even about being a hero in the sense of glory or fame or adoration. You wanted to be tested, perversely. To know how you’d react. Now you know.

Swap out school, and swap in any scenery (sadly at this point) that involves a number of people in the public.

Does anyone else have reoccurring thoughts like this? I don’t want to overstate this by referring to it as “reoccurring,” I just mean, it isn’t uncommon for me to think about the above scenario. And again, the last bit is the key part because it is about the test more than the heroicness itself. Part of me is perversely curious about being tested, but obviously, I don’t actually want to be in a life or death situation. Does this make any sense?

I was thinking about it again today because I’m listening to an audiobook on the Korean War, and there is a bit from one of the soldiers who is being bombarded and overrun by the Chinese military, and he talks about those in the American military who either step up to the situation to act heroically, or who melt in the face of it. And sometimes, those who are traditionally seen as tough, and talk tough, are the melters, and those who are traditionally seen as weaker (smaller, skinnier guys) and who don’t talk tough, are the heroic ones. The battleground is obviously one of the most consistent testing grounds in the history of mankind, including in modern times, and so, it makes you wonder which one you would be, right? If such a situation ever happened?

Of course, I and others, are just regular people. We aren’t militarily-trained, but even those with training can melt. There is no telling until it happens. And the thing is, we think of those who manage to act heroically in such situations as heroes not because we ought to castigate those who can’t — it is entirely rational, reasonable, and a well-developed evolutionary response to run, hide and be scared in the face of imminent danger, and indeed, the possibility of death — but because we so admire those who are able to somehow override centuries of survival instinct to be heroic. They’re still scared, I’m sure, but again, they are able to overcome it and/or fight through hit. That is the definition of courage. Whatever cheat code they have, it often isn’t even conscious thought. It it is just reaction and instinct. How they come to be the person that has such a response versus the person who has the opposite response, I don’t know.

[For the record, there is a third person in these scenarios. I think there is a line between being someone who rightly reacts with fear in the face of death and hides or runs, and the person who also rightly reacts with fear in the face of death and hides or runs, but is also willing to sacrifice others in order to survive. We call this person the coward. The American soldier in the Korean War outlines an example of this sort of thing. More on that when I review the book.]

So yeah, part of me wants to know which person I would be without having to ever actually find out; thus, the occasional fantastical scenario in my head. How can we possibly know with certainty which we will be? Will I melt, or would I somehow overcome my evolutionary training? At minimum, I like to think I would never be the third person.

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