For decades I’ve been reading the New York Times’ obituaries. And no, not because, as George Burns famously said, “I get up each morning, read the obituary column, and if my name’s not there, I eat breakfast.” (I must admit, though, that recently I’ve been paying closer attention to the ages of the people in the obituaries.)
Rather, I read them because they’re both interesting and educational, covering almost everything that people do or think about. They also expose readers to the scintillating prose of Margalit Fox, who I thought was the best obituary writer at the Times until a journalist friend corrected me and said, “No, she’s the best writer at the Times.”
Obituaries teach us about science, music, law, movies, literature, war, sports, mathematics, architecture, politics, medicine, civil rights, business, art, newspapers, computers, crime, philosophy, religion, and on and on and on. I’m sure that in the last few years I’ve read at least one obituary about someone who did something memorable in each of those fields, teaching me things I never knew even if I didn’t fully comprehend everything I read (think philosophy).
One small example. A few weeks ago, there was an obituary about Robert N. Hall, a physicist who built the first solid state laser in 1962, and whose inventions and work are behind lasers that read bar codes at supermarkets, microwaves, electric locomotives, gamma ray detection in nuclear research, and lots of other things that make our life so much easier even if we (make that I) don’t really understand how they work, or even what they do. While I learned about his life a bit too late, it was, nevertheless, a worthwhile educational experience. In fact, it was more than a bit too late, for although Dr. Hall died in 2016, his obituary appeared only this month when the Times, editing its prepared obituary, learned of his death only when it sought to interview him. Sic transit gloria mundi.
One somewhat unfortunate aspect of obituaries is that someone can be remembered not because of wonderful things accomplished over a lifetime, but because of one mistake, or, to put it in sports terms, one passed ball, home run pitch, base running slip, or running the wrong way in the Rose Bowl. Think Mickey Owens, Tracey Stallard, Fred Merkle, or Roy Riegel, each of whose Times’ obituaries led off with their fateful (or is that fatal?) gaffe. Bill Bruckner, you should live a long life, but nothing you do will ever change the first paragraph of your prepared obit.
There’s another side to this obituary coin, however. The Times also prints obituaries of most Congressional Medal of Honor winners, and in one respect many are quite similar. They’re about regular folk, who lived conventional lives as doctors, farmers, construction workers, nurses, teachers, and other non-celebrity jobs, made no great discoveries, were not luminaries in any field, and at first blush seemed to have done nothing special to earn them a mention in the Times. Except that early in their lives, when they were 18 or 20 or 23 — ages when many of our children still are in college or graduate school — they performed acts of heroism so spectacular that if they weren’t written black on white in the Paper of Record they would be difficult to believe.
And then, after those breathtaking acts of courage, these men — the only woman who was awarded a medal of honor did not receive a Times obit — went home to live lives of normalcy, getting married, raising children, going to work, helping their neighbors, and serving their communities. And so their obituaries start not with a recitation of a booted ground ball or the invention of the microwave, but with acts of valor in the service of others.
It was with this background in mind that I read the news article about James Shaw, Jr., rushing the Waffle House shooter and disarming him (a classic case of “the only thing to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man without a gun.”) And as much as I admire Mr. Shaw, it pains me that I have to disagree with his statement, or at least part of his statement, which he gave after the shooting — “I’m not a hero. I’m just a regular person. I think anybody could’ve done what I did if they’re just pushed in that kind of cage.”
I believe him when he says he’s just a regular person, but that doesn’t make him any less a hero. The Congressional Medal of Honor winners, heroes all, were also just regular people who, when they were “in that kind of cage,” were able, like Mr. Shaw, to dig deep within themselves to find the bravery necessary to put others and principles before their own safety.
That’s what heroism is. And it’s also John McCain refusing to be released from the Hanoi Hilton without his compatriots after he’d been captured and tortured (and still a hero, Mr. President), not pitching a tough World Series game; it’s Yosef Mendelevich, Sylva Zalmanson, and Natan Sharansky maintaining their faith in a Soviet prison, not a celebrity setting up a foundation.
But being a hero doesn’t require a firefight in a war zone or disarming a shooter; you don’t have to give up years of your life — or, indeed, your life — for a principle. Heroes include those who stand up to bullies picking on the defenseless, those who fight for the rights of the weak outside their community even against the wishes of those within, those without power who still speak truth to power. Heroes are those who risk losing something significant — whether their reputations, wealth, friends, or even their lives — for the greater good.
Everyone can be a hero. As Jed Bartlett (were he only our real president) said so memorably, “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.”