Most of us wake up in the morning, adjust our eyes to the light, wash off the residue of slumber and steady ourselves for the day’s work. Sometimes it’s a happy prospect, sometimes drudgery, but for the vast majority it’s neither joy nor sorrow. It’s just life.
And then you have those special ones, people who, for different reasons but common goals, rush into the day with adrenaline, courage and the knowledge that each step might be taking them toward their last. They are heroes, though they’d reject that title. And the true hero is precisely the one who doesn’t recognize his own face in the mirror but only appreciates the courage in those around him.
They are not defined by their separate faiths, although there is usually something in them that recognizes a higher power. Atheists can be courageous, and you could even say that they have the most to lose in risking themselves because on the other side of life is — nothing.
But heroes are humble, and you need to be humble to believe in God because that belief removes you from the center of the universe and helps you find your place in the hierarchy of humanity. To those who finger rosaries, sit Shiva, bow toward Mecca or search for the inner light, heroism comes from reaching outward — and then upward.
All of this is to say that in a world where many of us sit at desks, drive cars or tap on keyboards to earn our daily bread, it is important to remember the ones who live and die for others. For us, in fact. It is particularly important to do so this week, when we commemorate both the impossibly heroic founding of our nation and, 90 years later, the desperate struggle to save it from being destroyed.
Philadelphians live shoulder to shoulder with the memories of heroes. Each stone bears the imprint of some important thing, some momentous happening that shaped us into the nation we’ve become. It’s the whispering echo of liberty, captured forever on parchment and then given to the colonies and the greater world with the flourish of a pen. Heroes hung their hats here during that sweltering July.
It’s the sacrifice in the frozen fields of Valley Forge, where the struggle to survive hunger and fear and grasp the better angels of the human soul was as heroic as any battle.
It is also the consecrated ground at Gettysburg, where Americans — not colonists — faced down other Americans who’d lost the memory of Valley Forge and Lexington and Saratoga and thought they could re- create as great a nation as the one they’d been bequeathed by Jefferson, Madison and the rest.
This is the continuing chain of heroism that forms a civic spine for a country of challengers and dreamers. It’s no wonder that we give birth to men who write things like “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights” or “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice” or “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
We. We. We. As John Donne wrote, no man is an island, and even though America is based in part upon a passion for individual freedom and liberty, we also recognize that we are only as strong as our weakest link. And that is the essence of our heroism, or at least the heroism of those citizens who greet the day and the week and the following years with dedication to their brothers and sisters.
This heroism is not a thing of the past, or even the recent past. Statues commemorate the figures of the revolution and other wars. We bow our heads at Arlington, at Normandy, before the sleek black marble of the Vietnam memorial in Washington and the somber memorials to the first responders of 9/11.
But each day brings new heroes — and new sorrow. Even as we remember the sacrifice of the soldiers at Valley Forge and Gettysburg this week, we are forced to say prayers for 19 other heroes whose battlefield out west was engulfed in wildfire and who fought not to forge a nation or to preserve it but to protect her citizens from the banal dangers of peacetime.
Nineteen young men called the “Granite Mountain Hotshots” lost their lives battling raging infernos in Arizona. They were the Navy SEALs of firefighters, elite of their chosen profession and, with one exception, their entire unit was killed trying to stop the flames.
These are the type of people who are still among us, generations on. For it is true, as Dylan Thomas once wrote, “And death shall have no dominion.”