Dissecting the Heroic Ideal

12 mins read

If there’s one thing you can do to make a handful of service-oriented people feel queasy, it’s issuing the H-word. Eyes roll. Exhales deepen. Sometimes, people put forward the most sincere form of respect they can muster by calling a first responder, current-duty military or front line health worker a ‘hero’. Most crucially, we can observe what they might mean by that. From here, we can dissect the heroic ideal.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples to get the ball rolling.

First, a video by Donut Operator. He puts it perfectly; regular people who were put into impossible situations that everyone expects to act perfect all the time. The video (which can’t be embedded here due to age restrictions) shows the remarkable events of the Las Vegas active shooter in 2017. Officer Cook and his Field Training Officer, Officer Haynes both responded to the scene where Officer Cook would eventually be hit by the shooter. Watching the video, you can hear the shooting, the response to Cook being hit and eventually, the two get into a nearby police vehicle to rush him to the hospital.

In the car, Officer Haynes is rushing through traffic, issuing questions to Cook to help reaffirm his level of awareness as they’re on the way to the hospital. A rush of questions about simple information, Cook’s pets, his girlfriend and finally, his choice to serve.

A tourniquet twisted on his arm, like a life-saving boa-constrictor eking out every last ounce of pain from the newly minted officer, Cook replies;

“Do you love this shit?”

“It’s the best.”

“This is why we do it.”

Now, let’s set the stage for another scene from the same event. In this video, influencer Dan Blizarian tries to make a similar choice. The unarmed, untrained media man made for a police officer asking for a gun so he could ‘help’. Obviously, the officer gave Dan some choice words to discourage his interference. This is the type of ‘heroic action’ that front line personnel may view as the most cringe-worthy type of ‘heroic announcement’. Or, the ‘thank me for my service’ kind of self-aggrandizing behaviour. Not ideal.

More recently, a FDNY squad executed a rope rescue that made waves through the Fire-Rescue community. Notice, in the news coverage above, the members are called ‘heroes’. Though the spokesman for the squad is quick to spread the responsibility for the rescue through his team, the encouragement and dramatic words offered from the public interviewed for the piece clearly present the pedestal the responders are held upon.

Air Ambulance crews in Ontario ride ORNGE, a trademark orange helicopter that deploys all over Ontario. With the same stoic presence the public expects out of our road-bound paramedics, the team behind ORNGE finds landing zones in remote forests, farmers fields, baseball diamonds and rural neighborhoods across the province. The work environment is cramped, loud and demands intense focus. Even to first responders, ORNGE seems to float into scenes with angelic grace, offering a way out where crews might not otherwise be able to operate. Certainly, by most standards, a gallant affair.

The drive to help isn’t only with the recent generations, of course.

Fred Tilston grew up in London, Ontario, Canada with a relatively common experience. That is, until he deployed with the Essex Scottish Regiment. His military career would place him in an administrative role until he volunteered to go forward on an attack of the Hochwald Forest in 1945. Of his official citation for his actions to recieve Canada’s highest military honour, the Victorian Cross, Major Tilston embodies the fighting spirit that drives the armed forces toward the fields of fire.

Such had been the grimness of the fighting and so savage the enemy resistance that the Company was now reduced to only 26 men, one quarter of its original strength. Before consolidation could be completed the enemy counter-attacked repeatedly, supported by a hail or [sic] mortar and machine gun fire from the open flank. Major Tilston moved in the open from platoon to platoon quickly organizing their defense and directing fire against the advancing enemy. The enemy attacks penetrated so close to the positions that grenades were thrown into the trenches held by his troops, but this officer by personal contact, unshakeable confidence and unquenchable enthusiasm so inspired his men that they held firm against great odds.

Citation for Victoria Cross, Major Fred Tilston

The Pedestal

Here’s an uncomfortable truth; certain people are more drawn toward situations that will help the greater good, despite exposure to danger. Here’s an even more uncomfortable truth; you may have that kind of personality.

Uncommon, atypical and exceptional are words I would have no problem assigning to that type of personality. After all, the ranks of our fire service, the local police detachment or the regional ambulance garage would be swarming with new recruits if the process to serve attracted anything less than an uncommon person.

It’s difficult to identify with that idea because, for some reason, the type of person who takes on an uncommon profession is just as quick to relinquish any type of recognition for that position. Ultimately, that’s not only noble, but a needed feeling. The responder ought to respond without needing fanfare or appreciation. It’s her job to do so, after all.

Those who are called don’t need anything but the calling.

However, this reserved action, no matter how closely kept by the responder, creates waves of impression in the community. The people who call upon him – the front line nurse, the police detective, the fire-paramedic, the navy boatswain – wish desperately for the type of person that will do what you’ve signed up to do. From Donut’s video above, the public places regular people who were put into impossible situations upon a pedestal.

You might not like to hear that, but it’s true.

That might generate an uncommon degree of responsibility to shoulder, but it’s true.

The Heroic Ideal

In writing this article, I would like to propose an idea that I’m being careful to clearly articulate.

The people we serve expect a standard from us – they hold a ‘heroic ideal’ that they wish desperately for when we’re called to respond.

Read that again.

From the flames of the fully involved basement, in the nest of a human trafficking cesspool or laying low, under the glow of incoming tracer rounds, they expect the type of action that will resolve their problem, no matter how impossible that feat may be.

The unbelievable pressure that places upon our people – those uncommon ones who heed the impossible call – makes for a delicate balance.

Balancing the Heroic Ideal and Reality

When you advance from the line and offer yourself for service, there are several standards you must meet. Nobody forces you to step forward. You can ring the bell, hang up your webbing or discharge whenever you like. That’s a very valuable thing to consider. You are the one that determines your level of involvement.

After the written tests, fitness evaluations, psychological exams and peer reviews, you’re measured, ultimately, by one additional standard. Despite what may be possible, they desperately wish you will have the fortitude, durability and passion to help every single time they call.

The ideal you are expected to attain is almost impossible.

The archetype we’re expected to reach for includes the following concurrent characteristics;

  • Problem solving ability within razor-thin timelines in such a way that life safety and property conservation are prioritized.
  • Mental toughness to preserve operational capacity.
  • Physical fitness that enables strength, endurance, power and speed bench-marked against athletes.
  • Personal grit derived from experiences that demand perseverance.
  • Emotional intelligence that offers real compassion, understanding and empathy.
  • Skill honed from diligent training.

All at the same time, all the time.

If you were looking for items to help categorize your ambitions, formulate your list from the points above. There is an endless supply of work. The reflection that stares back at you can be sharpened further. Inventory your progress, refocus your aim and move toward the challenge they desperately wish you would seek.

The heroic ideal is a concept that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit – it’s a standard held to us from the panicked, seeking hands that reach for safety. It’s the nervous, squinting eye that asks if everything is going to be okay. It’s the desperate wish that we’ll be what is needed. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Sometimes, everything we’ve done to prepare and all we can give simply won’t be enough. That’s the tragic weight we’ve accepted to bear.

Still, forward, into the unknown, we march and crawl.

We do all we can, because they desperately wish we would. That’s the heroic ideal.

Are you doing all you can?

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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