On Nov. 11, 2010, 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta became the latest recipient of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest award for valor. Giunta won the medal as a result of actions taken in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in 2007. Those who presented the medal referred to him as a "hero." Giunta, in his remarks at the time, was clearly uncomfortable with the moniker.
What a conflict: On the one hand, anyone might wish to be recognized for what they have done. On the other hand, prolonged applause (whether from within or without) can make the recipient anxious ... hell, what happened is just what s/he would have done anyway -- what anyone might have done. Circumstances presented themselves and there was action irrespective of how anyone might regard that action. There was no time to think -- there was only time to act.
Not all of us find ourselves in the extreme danger that Giunta faced as a soldier. But he was a soldier and faced the circumstances of his life from within that context. We are largely otherwise -- no bullets or bombs or people trying to kill us -- and yet the circumstances of this life can feel like swarming enemies ... thoughts, words and deeds that need to be vanquished. Some act as a means of gaining and sustaining applause, but the rest of us do what we can with the tools we have in the moment that presents itself. Only later can we assess our heroisms and our cowardice.
Moment after moment, we act. We then assess and act anew. Moment after moment. Sure, we'd appreciate a pat on the back, but I guess the only question that makes much sense is, "Would I have done that where no one else could notice?" In action, nobody notices. And if nobody notices, who would I be?
It's pretty heroic.