We were watching a rerun of NCIS, an 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.”
Some people have called me brave because I’ve survived cancer and heart problems and a lot of other life-threatening ailments. As it happens, I would have been just as happy to skip all of that and have a pleasant, uneventful life. For excitement, there’s always a trip to an amusement park where you can get a huge dose of adrenaline without being in actual danger — and it (usually) doesn’t require years of recovery and rehab.
I’ve managed to slouch into senior citizenship still alive but hardly deserving a medal. You don’t get medals for staying alive. Survival isn’t bravery or valor. A mosquito will do its best to survive. So will a slug.
Saving your own life (and occasionally, dragging others with you to safety) is natural. Staying alive is hard-wired into life’s DNA. Otherwise, life on earth would have long since vanished. It may yet.
My definition of bravery or valor is the same as Gibbs’. You have to make a willing, conscious choice to put yourself in peril for the sake of others. There must be a choice involved. Taking risks for fun, to make money, to get your adrenaline rushing through your blood vessels, or because you’re going to die anyway isn’t courage. It’s survival. Some of us are better survivors than others, but that doesn’t change anything.
If you do it for fun, it’s entertainment. If you’re doing it for profit, it’s shrewd business practice. If it’s choosing to live rather than die? It’s survival.
I have never done anything I would define as courageous. I’ve done exciting stuff, entertaining, and fascinating stuff. I’ve gotten myself into tight corners — almost always by accident — and lived to tell the tale. I’ve occasionally put others ahead of me to help when I could. But never have I put me in harm’s way to save another’s life.
The most I could be accused of is doing the right thing when it was not the easiest choice. I won’t get a medal for that, either.