Joplin James, a kindergarten teacher at Shelburne Community School in Vermont, tightened his grip on the seatback rail as the school bus lurched toward a treacherous curve of I-89 sliced between huge walls of glaciated rock. Joplin, along with 60 energetic middle-schoolers and their chaperones, was eager to get home from a week-long school camping trip. But this section of roadway was notorious for accidents, and the teacher silently wished for everyone’s safety.
As they came through the turn, he saw the accident. A woman had smashed her car into the rocks, the impact tossing her vehicle across two lanes of traffic and onto the median strip. Debris littered the road.
The bus braked hard to a stop and, without thinking, Joplin leaped to the ground and ran to the car. “I thought the driver was a goner,” he recalls. “Her whole face was bloody, she was unconscious, and the roof was caved in. She had her seatbelt on, but the way she hit…” He shakes his head. “The hardest part was the kids had to watch.”
As he paused for a moment to assess the damage, the driver’s compartment began to fill with smoke. Joplin ran back to the bus and grabbed a fire extinguisher. “By the time I got back, the engine compartment was full of flames,” he says. He emptied the extinguisher over the blaze as other motorists pulled the driver from the wreck.
“She was so banged up I questioned the choice to move her,” he says. “But it was the right thing to do because the fire reignited and totally consumed the car’s interior.”
Joplin is more comfortable hiking the Long Trail high in the mountains of Vermont or reading Blueberries for Sal to his kindergartners than he is being called a hero. But, by anyone’s definition, that’s precisely what he is. When another human being needed help, he acted decisively and put himself in harm’s way.
“I’m not a hero,” he protests vehemently. “When I think of a hero, I think of that guy who stepped in front of the shooter in Tucson when Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in January. Now he’s a hero!”
Joplin is referring to Bill Badger, the 70-something retired army colonel who leaped at the Tucson shooter as he tried to reload, and held onto his gun arm as two others joined him to subdue the man. Six people died that day, including an elderly woman and a young girl, but Badger undoubtedly saved others from violent death.
Watching the replay of cell phone images and news media interviews with Tucson survivors, the question became inescapable: What makes a person risk himself to save others?
“Helping others in a crisis is a gut response,” explains researcher Paul Slovic, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and president of Decision Research, a nonprofit institute that investigates human judgment, decision-making, and risk. “We don’t fully understand what’s going on in the brain, but we’re built in a way to respond quickly to emergencies. And in a crisis, we don’t sit back and weigh the costs and benefits with pencil and paper. We react in an instant.”
Essentially, the human default position is to help others.
Most people we tag with the label “hero” are professionals who have been trained as soldiers, firefighters, police, paramedics, or search and rescue team members to hone that instinctive, heroic response and put their lives on the line—so in the split-second it takes to decide to either run or help, they’ll move forward and do what needs to be done. They’ll take the risk, take the bullet, take the consequences.
But so, it turns out, will ordinary people on their way to work or picking up milk at the corner market. There’s the subway hero in New York City who, after a woman commuter fell from the train platform onto the tracks, jumped onto the tracks himself, pulled her between the rails, and covered her body with his as a train passed over the two of them.
There’s the letter carrier in Lexington, Massachusetts, who saw a house on fire, ran in, and pulled a 96-year-old man to safety. Before it was brought under control, the blaze engulfed the house and burst through the roof.
Then there’s the Mississippi football coach who was out fishing with a buddy when he spotted smoke coming from another craft. Acting swiftly, the coach pulled passengers to safety just before the craft burst into flame.
And there’s the Pennsylvania mom who was picking up some milk from the local stop-and-go when she saw a man grab his former wife and force her into a car. As the man tried to hang on to the woman and get into the car himself, the mom leaped forward, opened the passenger door, yanked the woman out of the car, and pulled her into the store to call police.
“Every one of us is a hero in waiting,” says Scott Allison, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Richmond and co-author of Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them. “We’re just waiting for the opportunity to step forward and do something extraordinary.”
Still, why? Why place oneself in harm’s way—often for a complete stranger? After all, it’s not rational, and it’s certainly not prudent. The explanation may have as much to do with human biology as with altruism, says Allison. “There’s research to show that there’s a biological, evolutionary tendency toward these actions. We’re social animals. And we’ve learned, or at least our genes have learned, that survival is fostered by social relationships. We’ve learned that if we’re helpful to others, we’re more likely to survive ourselves.”
Selfless selfishness: That does sound like a bit of a paradox, but it may well be that the engine of self-interest—on a genetic level, at least—is what drives our noblest deeds.
Another surprising fact about heroism is that it need not be associated with danger or classical ideas of bravery at all. Heroism does not require standing in front of a speeding bullet, leaping through fire, or putting one’s life on the line. Indeed, there are many ways to be heroic, and some do so quietly, without any fanfare. Take Mississippi washerwoman Oseola McCarty. Forced to quit school in the sixth grade to care for an elderly home-bound relative, she took in laundry to support herself. Throughout her life, she never owned a car, walked everywhere she needed to go, attended Friendship Baptist Church every Sunday, held her Bible together with tape, and banked just about every dime she ever made. Eventually those dimes added up to $150,000—and Oseola decided to give it all away.
“More than I could ever use,” the tiny, 87-year-old told The New York Times.
The money went into a trust and, upon her death in 1999, some went to her church and family, but most went to the University of Southern Mississippi, a nearby school that did not admit children of Oseola’s race when she was a girl. The money—quickly matched by a business community humbled by the woman’s generosity—was used to provide scholarships for nine African-American children.
Or take two nuns in Indianapolis, Sisters Rita Ann Wade and Barbara McClelland, who had seen the largely middle-class eastside neighborhood nearby slide into poverty. Based at the Holy Cross convent, church, and school, they watched as older residents—and some of the young ones, too—became afraid to venture into the increasingly hostile streets.
Holy Cross became an oasis of safety and succor. It wasn’t unusual for a homeless or hungry soul to come knocking on the convent’s back door in the middle of the night. “Holy Cross had a food pantry, and the door to the parish office was right next to our kitchen door,” explains Sister Barbara. “So when people got hungry or just wanted to talk, they’d come and pound on our door.”
She chuckles. “We had one guy who came every night at 2, 3, or 4 in the morning and woke us up.”
As a result of their nocturnal visitors, the two Sisters jokingly began to refer to their “back door ministry.” But they also recognized the very real need for a place where people in the neighborhood could find food, a place to relax, a place to be heard, a place to be safe—and a couple of loving hearts.
The two women approached the problem the way they approached every other challenge: They thought about it, prayed about it, then talked to their spiritual community. The women’s order ultimately voted to have the nuns quit their jobs and begin serving the neighborhood on a full-time basis. Within a year, Sisters Rita Ann and Barbara had rented and renovated a house on the near eastside and named it “Miracle Place” (amiracleplace.org).
Today, 11 years later, the house is a hive of activity—and the Sisters have also cleared away a pocket park across the street where kids can play safely. Those who have watched the community evolve say that the Sisters will never tell you the half of what they do nor take the credit for any of it. Yet one look at the door constantly swinging open for neighborhood children, their brothers, sisters, parents, and old folks shows the Sisters are saving lives as fully as if they were snatching victims from a burning building.
The point being that heroes come in different forms: the action-hero kind like Joplin James, the secret-giver kind like Oseola McCarty, and the quietly devoted kind like Sisters Rita Ann and Barbara.
There’s heroism in such small gestures as writing a check to your favorite charity, coaching a little league team, or offering a kindness to a total stranger. “It’s all these gifts of self that, put together, really make the biggest difference,” says Diane Heavin, co-founder of the Curves fitness centers and a star of the ABC hit television show Secret Millionaire.
In fact, if you really want to change someone’s life, “Think about the last time you put a smile on someone’s face,” says Heavin. “Then go out there and do it again.”
Ellen Michaud is the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life. Contact her at theblessedblog.com.