How Should We Thank Our Heroes This Holiday Season?

By practicing decency and doing what’s right, simply because it’s right.

Posted Nov 23, 2020

As we face a holiday season like no other, and given everything we have endured in 2020, I suggest a fitting theme for this year—and future years too, as needed. Let our cornucopia overflow with gratitude for the heroes in our world—and for showing us in real-time and real life how to live heroically.

We're all more aware than ever this year of the everyday heroism practiced by the world's healthcare providers, the frontline folks working tirelessly to keep so many of us alive and the rest of us well. But in fact, heroes come in all shapes and sizes, colors, and ages.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported a story about a 102-year-old woman of Armenian descent who donated more than $1 million to help ease the suffering in her ancestral home after its recent war with Azerbaijan. Others in the Armenian diaspora community in Fresno, California marveled at Clara Margossian’s generosity. From Armenia came deep thanks and a strong awareness of the donor’s personal connection to the country’s greatest tragedy, the 1915 Armenian genocide, which her family fled.

For Margossian, it wasn’t about being any kind of hero. It was simply the right thing to do. There was a need. She had the money. Simple.

Source: Tanuha2001_Shutterstock

If you listen to them, this is exactly what real-life heroes always say. “Someone had to do it.” Or, “I would hope someone did it for me if I were in the same situation.”

Albert Camus’ all-too-timely 1947 novel The Plague is ultimately about heroism. Camus wants to know what motivates charitable action when it isn’t about religious faith. In the novel, a deadly virus kills half an Algerian city’s occupants by jumping from animals to humans before spreading from person to person. Sound familiar?

The novel’s hero, Dr. Rieux, perseveres throughout the epidemic in risking his own life to tend to the sick and dying. He insists his actions are not about heroism. “It’s a matter of common decency,” he says, adding, “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Asked to define decency, Rieux responds, “In general, I can’t say, but in my case, I know that it consists of doing my job.”

I expect most of our frontline nurses, doctors, EMTs and others caring for those with COVID-19 and other serious illnesses would agree with Dr. Rieux. They don’t start their shifts or do their rounds thinking, “I want to be a hero today.” Instead, they simply do their jobs—which frequently consist of actions most of us consider heroic.

When I think of heroes I think of the men and women I have interviewed and written about over more than 30 years since I began reporting on the HIV-AIDS pandemic. They dared to be public about their experience of living with a deadly infection that too many considered something shameful and never to be spoken of in "polite" society. They drew upon the courage and resilience many didn't realize they possessed, becoming their own best advocates within the medical system. 

I think of people like Bobbi Campbell, a nurse in San Francisco when he was diagnosed with AIDS—advanced untreated HIV disease, what is today a highly preventable late-stage of the infection. Early prevention posters featured the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on Campbell’s foot, the purple spots that were an early warning among gay men in particular that HIV had seriously damaged the immune system.

During a June 1983 gay and lesbian health meeting in Denver, Bobbi Campbell and several other gay men with AIDS from San Francisco joined with others from New York City to draft a manifesto they called the Denver Principles. It laid out their expectations of medical care providers and the active role they expected to play in every decision affecting them. They eschewed the label “AIDS victim,” instead, asserting boldly that they were “people with AIDS.” Their humanity came first; their medical diagnosis second.

They thoroughly rejected the stigma already attached to HIV-AIDS by then. As openly gay men they were used to rejecting the disapproving public’s homophobia; they weren’t about to accept this latest effort to expect them to feel shame simply for contracting a socially disapproved virus. They knew that words and language have the power to define, to wound, and to marginalize. They rejected it outright.

I looked to these men as my own heroes, role models of courage and resilience when I needed role models after my own most unexpected HIV diagnosis in 2005. I reminded myself of how they had boldly stepped up in a moment of their lives—and of the HIV-AIDS pandemic—when they would have been justified in wanting to hide under a bedsheet until the nightmare passed. Back then, before there were today's effective medications to keep HIV-positive people like me alive and well, the nightmare almost inevitably ended in death.

When I was diagnosed, my doctor told me that once medication had suppressed the virus to an undetectable level, I would be more likely to die from old age than from HIV. You had better believe I am grateful for that.

I am also grateful for the men whose example I have been able to emulate, and the courage I have found within myself to follow their lead. I have been able to champion my own case, to reach out and seek whatever I’ve needed to stay well, and even to put all I know about advocacy and living with chronic illness to good use as my late mom's primary caregiver.

Who are your heroes? Why are they your heroes? Have you learned something from them that changed your life? The best tribute you can pay them is to draw in your mind from their example when you face an uncertain situation. Think about how they would handle it. You are highly likely to find courage and resilience you didn’t know you already possess.

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