Heroes in our Midst

Beacon Hill (Photo: Instagram/@onlyinbos)

We have a choice. In these drastic times of isolation, fear and economic trauma, we still can decide to either be overwhelmed with despair or connected to actions that motivate us to persevere and prevail. It’s not always quite that binary but the approach that maintains majority control of our thinking is paramount. It can be overwhelming when we are continuously saturated with a constant and repetitive barrage of the “numbers.” If we look around us, though, there are daily examples of inspiring behavior that give us hope and motivate us to move forward. Community services have existed around us for decades. Many of them are taken for granted, not out of disrespect, but simply because they are part of the fabric of the community. 

During the 9/11 tragedy, we all gained a vivid and valuable perspective. With a fire or explosion, every human instinct is to exit through all available means. The need to survive is innate and universally held. It is part of what makes us who we are. Yet despite this instinct common to all, our first responders, firemen and women, police officers and EMTs, did the exact opposite. As a result of their intense training and an uncommon commitment, these individuals “reprogrammed” themselves to rush into harm’s way. We all have vivid images of those horrific days in September of 2001 with thousands of people desperately exiting the towers and immediate external vicinity. Certainly there were selfless acts of compassion by these citizens, but the primary concern was driven by the instinct of survival. While thousands were running in the direction you would expect, hundreds of New York City first responders were running into the building. They did this without concern for themselves, but simply for the sake of others. I cannot think of a more heroic human reaction than these men and women during the 9/11 attack. Their sacrifice saved countless lives and forever changed our perspective on these public servants. In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy, Americans were graced with the enduring inspiration of these front line warriors.

This current threat has some commonality and uniqueness from the past. We are under attack from an enemy. Microscopic as it may be, it leaves very visible signs of its presence from tragic death to suffering and the fear of the unknown. Aside from the physical, medical and psychological implications, the greatest economy in the world has come to a sudden halt in the last two weeks. Everyone in this country and 144 others have been impacted, making it truly a global crisis. This is unprecedented in our lifetime. Despite the fear and uncertainty, most of us are removed from the “front lines.” As in any desperate battle, the majority of the population is hopefully safeguarded against the highest risks. This is the job of the government which in this case operates at the local, state and federal level.

Expecting perfection is unrealistic. Expecting success should be assumed. Virtually all of us have been transformed from our prior existence and have made an almost instantaneous transition to being isolated in our homes. There are worse outcomes, but the dramatic change should not be underestimated on our physical and mental well-being. Fortunately, we live in a time where technology-based tools are available to ease the stress. Where would any of us be today without cell phones, FaceTime, email and e-commerce? 

Despite the sacrifices by average citizens, most of us only hear and read about the “front lines.” The majority of us wake up in the morning and try our best to maintain a reasonable life in our home. How about the nurse or doctor who wakes up, just like many of us, kisses their children and partner and then leaves for the hospitals and clinics that are trying to stay afloat in this battle? Every day, by the choice of their profession, they put on their protective equipment that we have heard so much about and travel into the storm to treat those in need. They do this thinking about their loved ones and the risks they may bring into their homes when they return at night. They haven’t committed this courageous act for themselves. It is a sacrifice for us, people they don’t know and probably will never meet. Selfless acts of heroes. I encourage all of us to think about those firefighters, police officers, EMTs, orderlies, doctors, nurses and others who are the firewall between this enemy and the majority of the population. Fear in our lives comes into play when we consume ourselves with things that are out of our control. Will I get the virus? When will this end? What about our finances? I would like to suggest that the next time we are feeling some self-pity for an inconvenience, let’s think about the heroes in our midst, those whose names we do not know and faces are obscure, but we take comfort in the fact that they are there for us. Respect them and pray for them. These types of catastrophes tend to bring out the very best and sometimes the worst in our society. 

About a week and a half ago (just before the major local constraints), my wife and I went out for a ride into the city of Boston. No stopping and no visits, just a drive to observe. This was during the time when colleges were closing and the students were leaving by the thousands. As we were driving by countless students exiting on the sidewalks with anxious parents double-parked, one scene caught our attention. A young man was struggling as he pushed his laundry cart (the kind most dorms provide to transport your possessions) up the sidewalk. He had built some momentum against gravity so it was to his advantage to keep moving. Instead, this student chose to stop by a homeless woman lying against a wall on the sidewalk. He seemed to engage in a short discussion and wanted to assist her in some way. He began sorting through the contents of his cart and pulled out a couple of blankets that he graciously offered her. While he stopped to assist this woman in need, his cart began to roll into the street and into oncoming traffic. In one simple 30-second clip of random behavior, we caught a glimpse of the inherent good in humanity. This fine young person was waving to her, and she gratefully waved back as he ran into the street to retrieve his moving cart. Several cars in at least three lanes stopped as if to open a safe passage for him as he caught up to the runaway cart. A small act perhaps, no names, no lasting relationships, but compassion and kindness prevailed. These acts are everywhere and should be appreciated and replicated in these times. They are inspiring and will reduce our fear by increasing our belief that these quiet heroes are why we will prevail. That woman in need, the compassionate student, the attentive drivers all made it a beautiful moment.

As noted radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “And now for the rest of the story.” In times like this, we do learn a great deal about our society. The extremes become magnified. We cling to stories of compassion and good will towards each other because they give us hope. It is the essential ingredient for survival. Likewise the challenges of our society become more visible. 

This week Congress lost some confidence from the American people. Surely, the economic package will pass. Perhaps even by the publication of this column, the Senate version will become a reality and the House version will be reconciled. Why? It will because it has to. There is nothing heroic in that. What is frustrating and depressing for Americans to witness is that while they are asked to dramatically change their behaviors, Congress has not. My comments are intended to be non-partisan, because regardless of who is responsible for the needless delays and gridlock, all of Congress is responsible. 

It is very sad when a crisis like this cannot wake all of us out of “business as usual.” Our response to a national crisis like this has the ability to inspire people and restore confidence in their government. Instead the messy, cumbersome and conflict-based process is center stage at a time when the American people need to believe, and perhaps even more importantly see, everyone focused on the enemy. Some will say that a few days or a week or two will not have a big impact. Tell that to the laid off workers who have mortgages to pay. Remind the healthcare heroes who go into battle without full armor. Let thousands of hardworking small businesses become insolvent. When you live paycheck to paycheck, as many Americans do, a few days or weeks is the difference between survival in this calamity and desperation. If we must return to partisan squabbles, at least have the decency to call a “time out” and put it aside now for those who are suffering medically or financially. In times of great adversity, we learn about what is truly important.

At the end of the day, I choose to believe in the good of people. Look locally for the heroes among us. They are everywhere fighting for you. Support them, thank them and be inspired by them. After ignoring our honorable soldiers when they returned from Vietnam, we now show great respect to all veterans. We learned a painful and important lesson. 9/11 taught us a new level of honor and respect for courageous first responders. Attitudes change when adversity becomes a teaching moment. Perhaps one of the outcomes of this crisis will be how we respect our brave healthcare workers going forward and bring a new level of civility to our lives.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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