It was a rerun of an NCIS episode from a few years ago. The victim had given her life to protect others and her country’s secrets.
“She didn’t have to do it,” McGee pointed out.
“No,” said Gibbs. “She had a choice. That’s what makes her a hero.”
My cousin is my oldest friend, though we don’t see each other much. We communicate a fair bit on the Internet but hardly ever in person.
“You’ve always been braver than me,” she said.
The context was a picture of me and Garry riding the Cyclone at Coney Island. There’s a camera at the first drop. Hard to resist buying a picture of oneself and others screaming as you go down the nearly vertical first drop on an 84-year old wooden coaster.
But brave? It wasn’t as if I’d volunteered to rescue someone from danger. I paid my money and got the best adrenaline rush money can buy. Not brave. Not heroic.
Some people have called me brave because I’ve survived. As it happens, I would have been just as happy to skip all that and lead a pleasantly uneventful life. For excitement, there’s the Cyclone. I could have lived with that.
I’ve managed to slouch into senior citizenship alive but I hardly deserve a medal. You don’t get medals for surviving or you shouldn’t. Saving ones own life (and occasionally as collateral anti-damage, other people too) is instinct, not valor.
Staying alive is hard-wired into our DNA. Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.
My definition of bravery or valor is the same as Gibbs’. You have to make a willing choice. There has to be a choice! Taking risks for the fun of it, to make a killing in the stock market, or because your only other option is death isn’t courage.
If it’s fun, it’s entertainment. I love roller coasters. I probably would have liked sky diving had my back not been so bad. A personal passion or hobby involving doing dangerous stuff is not brave. Maybe it’s not even intelligent.
Taking a risk for profit? Shrewd, not brave.
Saving your own life? Finding a way by hook or crook to keep a roof over your head and food on your table? That’s instinct.
I’ve never done anything I define as courageous. I’ve done exciting stuff, entertaining and fascinating stuff. Some of these adventures proved disastrous. Others worked out okay. I’ve occasionally been selfless in helping others when I could. But I never voluntarily put myself in harm’s way to save someone else.
The most I could be accused of is doing the right thing when it wasn’t easy. I don’t think you get medals for that, either.
Anyway, that’s what I think.