I have to confess I felt pretty insignificant listening to journalist Eyal Press speak on NPR about his new book, Beautiful Souls. The book is about heroes, not the ones we celebrate, but those we might facetiously call the "little people". They may be small in status but they're gigantic in terms of courage.
For example, there is the story of Paul Grüninger, the Swiss police commander who refused a direct order from his superiors in 1938 to stop all Jews from entering Switzerland. By disregarding the order, and falsifying papers for the fleeing Jews, Grüninger saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands. For this action he was sacked in 1939 and lived in disgrace and poverty for the rest of his life.
Or take the story of Leyla Wydler, an accountant who noticed something odd with the books and reported it to her bosses. For doing this, she was then asked to repay her bonus. It turned out there was something fishy. She had discovered the Ponzi scheme (second only in scope to Madoff's) that Stanford Group Company was running years before the feds caught on. She also lost her job.
No one whom Press profiles in his book would be described as exceptional in conventional terms. What is exceptional is their commitment and conviction. To call them heroes--however commendable--somehow diminishes the nature of their actions. We can label them as such and then forget them. What Press has done so well is to reveal their stories in human terms. They did what was right and it cost them everything.
What does it take to exert courage today? Yes we think of bravery in terms of first responders and soldiers who put themselves willingly into harm's way to serve us. But there is another kind of courage that John F. Kennedy noted when he wrote: "The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.
The "courage of life" was something Kennedy knew first hand. As we know now since his medical records have been made public, the man was in pain most of his adult life. He was also a sickly child, and one not much loved by his mother but pushed hard by his father. Yet he served heroically in combat saving the lives of his crew and bringing his men to safety through shark-infested and enemy Japanese patrolled waters. Kennedy entered public life when he could have rested his decaying back and Addison's disease riddled body on his father's money.
The people that Press honors are the living embodiment of those who do, as Kennedy wrote, "what [they] must--in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressure--and that is the basis of all morality."
Not many I know have done what we may call heroic acts but I have known and do know plenty of folks in my life, starting with my parents, who live lives of personal accountability. Their morality is such that their own needs take a back seat to the needs of others. Their courage comes in the form of sacrificing personal comfort in order to make someone else more comfortable and live more peacefully.
Knowing that people of quiet courage exist invigorates all of us. It gives hope to the human spirit. But it does not let us off the hook. We may not perform acts of courage that make headlines but we can make acts of courage that help others around us.