May 5, 2020

Of heroes and super powers in a pandemic

“When people allow the well-being of others to become their motivation, the results are simply … immeasurable.”

The Dalai Lama’s Cat (David Michie, author)

Something is weighing heavily on my mind and on my heart this week, because of an experience I had talking with multiple health care professionals. I will describe the experience, and share with you what I have been considering in the days since.

Last week, a conversation like this one happened at least three different times. Colleagues who are health care workers said something like this:

“You know, I’m not on the front lines. I’m not in the ICU or the ER, wearing insufficient PPE to protect myself, treating seriously ill COVID-19 patients and putting my own life at risk. I do my work, but it is not as important as that work that others are doing. And I drive home into my neighborhood and see those signs people have made that say, ‘Thank You, Health Care Heroes!’ And I think, ‘that’s NOT me — I’m not a hero.’ And I feel guilty.”

The first time I heard that, I was sad. By the third time, I was heartbroken, and wondering what exactly is the message we are sending about what it means to be a hero.

In my neighborhood, there is a sign like that, thanking the heroes of health care. I, too, am not on the front lines, but I am a physician. I have also experienced feelings of guilt, similar to those described by my colleagues.

That sign was the first to go up in the early days of our awareness of the pandemic. But something beautiful is happening as this chronic disaster unfolds. So many families are home schooling, and the children in some families have begun to make additional signs (thank you, Diana Monroe, for the photos). We now have a sign thanking our sanitation workers who collect recycling and trash in our community. Another sign went up thanking our postman by name. And most recently, a sign went up thanking all the scientists. The children get it.

Consider all those who have been labeled “essential workers” in this crisis. There’s a really comprehensive list of those folks here. At first, that title seems to be a badge of honor. But it also turns out to be the designation that means “you still have to go to work,” and “you will put yourself at risk in the public” regardless of whether you have PPE, whether we understand the virus and its health implications or not, and whether you are a health care worker. This list also includes a large number of the lowest-paid workers in our society, who (not incidentally) are disproportionately people of color and marginalized and vulnerable populations. In many ways, it is a marker of economic inequity.

Defining heroism

As all of this has been swirling in my head, I have been thinking about some principles of heroism that have bubbled to the top for me, and I’ll share them with you here (and would love to hear what your own defining principles might be):

  • All efforts that anyone is making right now in which they provide service to or care for others while putting themselves at additional risk (physical, emotional, spiritual or economic risk counts here), are HEROIC!
  • There are many kinds of heroes — some are needed on the front lines and others work behind the scenes. In World War II, we as a nation did not send all our troops to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Many thousands of others, both military and civilian, contributed to our ability to take that beach and begin the liberation of Europe as part of a coalition of international allies. Everyone who tended a Victory Garden, every supply clerk, every mechanic and truck driver — they were all contributing to the greater good that made our victory possible. This is happening again now, and none of us who are contributing in any way, no matter how small it seems, needs to feel guilty.
  • There are also the superheroes, and each has her or his particular super power. I was watching (again) the latest remake of the movie, “Wonder Woman” last night. I am struck that, in the pantheon of those superheroes, Wonder Woman does not have to become “Aqua Man.” She does her super power, and he does his. In a major crisis, both are needed. Neither of them does it all.

So, if all these things are true, what does it really mean to be a hero? I think that, as the week has progressed, this is my distillation. Reading the book I quoted above has helped me come to some peace about all of this (and I’d highly recommend the book as a lighthearted antidote to your current news and social media information streams). Anyone who is taking action that is focused on the “other” and on the benefit of others, is, to me, a hero. That can take so very many forms these days. Restocking grocery store shelves so we can all eat? Hero. Taking telemedicine calls to help patients keep their diabetes under control? Hero. Staying away from your loved ones to lower the curve? Hero. Front-line health care worker saving lives. Undoubtedly a hero. And there are so many others.

One lesson here is that no one group of professionals can manage this crisis alone. And another is that contributing – or, put another way, heroism – takes many forms. So my response to this experience from my coaching practice is that I will seek out and name my gratitude for anyone, anywhere, who is focusing on others and their needs in some way, often at some potential detriment to themselves. The detriment to self is not what defines the hero – it’s the focus on others, using your particular super power.

There are MANY heroes right now, too many to list. If you are focusing on helping others, I am GRATEFUL!

Your perspective

Please share your own thoughts about what it means to be a hero, and perhaps some examples of heroism you are seeing in these times.

Many thanks to Diana Monroe for generously sharing these photos.

Last updated May 5, 2020

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