I just completed reading a book about some extraordinary examples of human courage and endurance. The word heroic is one that is used far more often than it deserves, but these individuals, extended beyond all reasonable capacity, still overcame and triumphed, though not without permanent scarring, both physical and psychological.
This in turn led me to consider the nature of heroism and courage, as defined by our culture (and here I can only speak to American culture). In general, we tend to regard breathtaking or heartbreaking stories of human suffering as the cornerstones for the truly courageous.
Facing a terrible illness or handicap; outlasting or surviving some horrible or mind-numbing accident or disaster; defending or protecting others at the risk of your own safety; these are the stories that move us emotionally and spiritually to salute and admire the courage of others.
It occurs to me, though, that in this process of respecting extraordinary human courage, we neglect to acknowledge and respect ordinary human courage. The courage that millions – billions – of people exhibit every day with such routine as to devalue its worth…if we even notice it at all.
I have witnessed this courage in many of the people I have come into contact with throughout my life. It’s a simple courage that you may wish to dismiss outright, but I urge you to take a moment to consider. It is the courage of living.
During my time in Corporate America, I worked alongside many others in cubicles or boxes. I would ultimately graduate to an office, which differs from a cubicle only in that is larger, has a real door and has a ceiling.
Every day, hundreds of people would show up for work, do their job to the best of their ability that day (few of us are at the best of our ability every day) and then go home to their families. In the best of those days, they would listen and share time with their spouses and children. In the worst of those days, they would strive to find the strength to do the same. The next day they would arise from bed and do the same thing all over again.
Some of these people didn’t like their jobs. Some of these people didn’t like their bosses. As an impartial observer, I can assure you that many times those views were warranted (even if it were me they weren’t pleased with – and I’m sure I provided opportunities for dismay in my time). Prospects for future advancement might be dim. Prospects for jobs elsewhere might be likewise uninspiring. Yet they continued to arrive each morning, try to do a good job and then go home each day to continue their work at home, be it their job or their family…or both.
There is something painfully dispiriting about the dehumanizing nature of “big business”. As the layers between “workers” and “leaders” grow, so too does the detachment and separation between what you are doing and what it actually means. Many are left working on tasks that they are unsure have any impact on the actual success of the company and certainly many of those are rarely informed by their leaders-on-high that they count as anything more than a number on a headcount page. Slogans, posters and directionless training classes do little to create a connection between the top and the bottom of a company. If the whole system does not breed hopelessness, it certainly spawns disenfranchisement. Given those conditions, the worker is responsible for providing their own motivation, which can sometimes flag under the weight of all the other responsibilities and duties they have in life.
This is where the naysayers may chime in and point out that this is called working for a living and that these people have no choice but to do this if they want to survive. But that claim is not true, for I have seen those who choose not to do this. Are they “quitters”? Are they weak? I don’t feel informed enough to judge the personal pressures and thought processes that cause a person to make those choices. I do know that many others somehow manage to overcome the vast void of disinterest and detachment that threatens to engulf them and they keep going, day after day. Beset, not by newsworthy stories of battling terminal illnesses or surviving wild animal attacks, they may nonetheless suffer the nagging injuries and pain that are part of life, mental drains such as depression or hopelessness or simply the ordinary strain of having too little pay or time to match their ever-increasing expenses and responsibilities.
And yet, every day they find the strength to do it once again. Despite the expectation that nothing dramatic will change in their life, despite the fact that they may face this same challenge every day, every month, every year until they hope to one day be healthy and safe enough to retire, their kids having moved successfully into their own lives.
To face that each day and still strive to do good in a world that so often ignores that virtue? To me, that is the essence of human courage. It is not the human courage you will see written in the newspaper or online, though those very writers possess and exhibit that courage. It is not the story you will see being “filmed at 11”, though those very same cameramen and staff may be the story behind the story. And more’s the pity that such a thing is simply accepted as “the way things are”. For courage, in any form should be celebrated, perhaps even more for the fact that it is so routinely overlooked.
I have seen such courage within my own family, with my close friends and with people I have had the opportunity to work with. Having avoided many of the more stressful conditions of living and having been, perhaps undeservedly, lucky in my working life, I look at the courage of those around me with awe and admiration. I cannot say whether I would be capable of such bravery.
I only know each and every one of you should recognize it in yourselves and celebrate it. I salute you!