Heroism has many different definitions


By Kathy Berken

In this space in December I wrote about courage, a word we don’t attribute to ourselves but to others, when they step outside of their fears and act anyway. Someone thought I was courageous for taking off my wig during a talk, revealing my chemo-driven bald head. I also pointed to Mary’s “fiat” as courage, her saying yes to being the Mother of God.

Kathy Berken

This month, let’s talk about heroism. My nephew Nick is an Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is married now, has a new baby boy, and works for the U.S. Veteran’s Administration.

Nick recently saved someone’s life, but it wasn’t in the Mideast or even at the V.A. It happened on a street in southeast Wisconsin. He gave me permission to tell his story.


Nick posted on Facebook a plea for prayers for two teenage girls who were hit by a truck. He witnessed the accident and pulled over to help. Others stopped to help, too. When Nick noticed one of the girls had a serious head wound, he quickly took off his knit cap and applied pressure to stop the bleeding. He was relieved when the medics arrived, he said. He had blood all over his hands, so he went to his doctor to get tested for any possible infection, more concerned about passing something along to his family than it posing any danger to himself.

Dozens of people responded to his post and many called him a hero. He wrote, “I would hardly say I’m a hero, I was just doing the right thing.” He added, thanking God, “It gives me hope that there were several people willing to drop everything and help complete strangers.”

We instinctively admire people who do the right thing in such circumstances because we innately know the goodness in it. We feel it in our gut and it often makes us smile. Such actions give us hope and that’s what sustains us. I call that heroism. It’s not always mixed with courage because, as I said earlier, courage is doing something despite our fears, without giving it any moral value. Courage is all about standing up to fear and, yes, you can save somebody from the battlefield and display both courage and heroism. But heroism is a word we apply to someone for doing the right thing to help another without thinking about ourselves, regardless if fear comes into play.

Nick became my hero 14 years ago when he drove five hours in a snowstorm in his rickety old car to pick me up from The Arch in Clinton to take me to the family homestead in Wisconsin. That was at Christmastime in 2000 when I was undergoing chemo treatments for my first bout of breast cancer. He told his mom simply, “It’s Christmas. You can’t have Christmas without family.”

You don’t have to take a bullet for someone; you don’t have to rescue someone from a burning building and you don’t have to transform the whole world to be a hero. But heroes seldom want to be labeled as such because by definition heroism is usually an act of altruism. We rightly attach that label to others because we desperately need good role models, people to show us what Jesus meant by loving others as God loves us and as we love ourselves.

I have no doubt that the word hero remains strong and significant when we attribute it to any person at all who simply does the right thing without thought of recognition or payment. We need every hero we can find to keep making us aware that God is truly alive in the world.

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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