Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it’s the hushed voice at the end of an exhausting day that says, “I’m still here. You can count on me.”
Heroism doesn’t always bellow. Sometimes it’s the quiet stillness at the end of a tough road that says, “I get it. I accept it, even though it's hard for me.”
Mike was born into a family of strong, courageous men. His father, brother and uncle were all New York City cops. Challenges were met head-on, with no hesitation, no complaint. In their undying love of sports, their favorite motto was "no pain, no gain."
In Mike’s family, courage defined a man’s worth. Courage was the ability to take risks, act despite danger, and keep fighting until the end. If you couldn't take the heat, if you showed fear, if you folded, you risked being called a coward.
As expected, Mike grew up to be a courageous man, facing challenges head-on without complaint. Now, however, he was facing a different kind of challenge. Marianne, his wife of 22 years, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His initial reaction was predictable: "We'll fight this; we'll beat the odds; we won't let it get the best of us."
At first, Marianne was grateful for his optimism. She was used to relying on Mike to take care of things. He was the strong one in the family, still her “hero.” But as time passed and the disease progressed, she became increasingly agitated. Gathering up her courage, she finally said to Mike, "We need to talk."
"About what?" he inquired.
Marianne took a deep breath. With wet eyes and a shaky voice, she responded, "Mike, I need you to accept that I’m dying. You make me feel like a failure when you keep telling me to fight the illness. Of course, I want to live. But I recognize that this disease is taking its course no matter what I do."
Mike couldn’t accept his wife’s “caving in” to her illness but Marianne pressed the point."I need you to be there with me - not with bravado, but with acceptance. Otherwise, I can't speak freely. I can't share with you how bad I feel. I can’t tell you how frightened I am for Sophie. She's only twelve years old. She has to be able to talk with you about what's happening. I hate when you make her feel that she has to be strong when she's not feeling that way. It puts too much pressure on her."
For the first time in his life, Mike needed to get in touch with a courage that had nothing to do with “fighting the fight.” This type of courage had to do with “accepting what was.” Sure, he could still hold on to the hope that Marianne would beat the disease, but he couldn't make it happen - no matter how hard he tried; no matter how hard she tried. This quiet kind of courage required Mike to relinquish control, not take control; to accept the inevitable, not give it all he had.
It wasn't easy for Mike. Indeed, he claimed that it was the toughest thing he ever did in his life. But he knew he was successful when Marianne, just moments away from death, whispered in his ear, “You’re still my hero.”
Interested in learning about diverse forms of heroism?
Dr. Phil Zimbardo, one of the world’s most distinguished psychologists, says “The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) is a nonprofit organization that advances everyday heroism. At HIP, we believe everyone has the potential to transform the private virtue of compassion into the civic virtue of heroic action, and we are dedicated to helping individuals internalize and express their “heroic imagination” in service to humanity.”