Badge of courage

There are many ways to be a hero.

As a child I think I was pretty typical in seeing firemen, policemen, and nurses as heroes.

But as I grew older, life became more complicated. I came of age during a time of significant change and controversy….and determining heroes became more challenging.

What about the young people my age who risked–and sometimes lost–their lives in order to force us to see the cruelty of the discrimination we so routinely practiced against people for no reason other than the color of their skin? And what about John Howard Griffin, the auRuby Bridgesthor of Black Like Me, who took the step most of us would not have dreamed of…working with a doctor to take medicine that ultimately was a factor in his death that would allow him to darken his skin enough to pass as a member of this oppressed minority…so that he could share at least a part of their story from the perspective of having lived it.

I remember seeing this iconic picture and thinking about the bravery of this 6-year-old girl who walked through a wall of hate so that she could get a decent education. She was a hero as well.

Then we found ourselves embroiled in an unwinnable war in Vietnam. Who were the heroes there? the young people who protested? those who fought? Or did I have to choose? Wasn’t it possible there were heroes on both sides in various ways?

Later I began to hear and read stories about other people from World War II that I considered heroes, although they didn’t see that they had done anything special. There was Corrie ten Boom, whose book The Hiding Place told the story of her Dutch family’s decision to protect Jews…their capture and experiences in the concentration camps…and then her willingness after the war to travel to Germany to bring a message of forgiveness and new possibility. There was Oskar Schindler, a flawed human being who still chose to take risks to rescue Jews from certain death. Many of us experienced his story through the movie Schindler’s List.

There have been others whose names have come forward as the years have gone by…Irina SendlerNicholas Winton…the entire village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

And now today.

The controversy over who should be considered heroic has reached a fever pitch with the giving of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to Caitlyn Jenner. Is she really a hero?

I believe she is.

I have heard a number of people who knew Bruce Jenner who have said they didn’t really like that person–who seemed to be rude, obnoxious, not really willing to acknowledge others. I didn’t know Bruce that well, but spent a little time with him and his wife–my cousin–when they came to visit after winning the decathlon. He was nice, but didn’t really share much of himself.

Now I know why. How can you share of yourself when you aren’t really sure who you are? or whether people will accept you if they really know who you are? I can’t imagine spending 60 years of my life in that kind of self-imposed cocoon.

But now Caitlyn has become who she has always felt herself to be…and I am much more impressed with Caitlyn than I ever was with Bruce. Maybe some of it is maturity, but I think more of it is because she is now an authentic person-and she recognizes that she has both the possibility and the responsibility of helping us understand what it is like to be a transgender person…and to challenge us to accept each other, even if we don’t completely understand each other.

Perhaps the best statement as to why I see her as a hero–a flawed human being, yes, as we all are, but a hero–is in this comment by Joey Vicente, a behavioral health specialist in the Army.

“Your definition of what or who a hero can or cannot be is irrelevant,” he wrote. “What if I told you that her speech last night saved even one human being from attempting to take their life. I’d call that a victory on any scale.”

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