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Heroism Turned Upside-Down

Pandemics remind us that heroism is available to everyone.

photo by Cathy Yeulet
Supermarket workers are now heroes
Source: photo by Cathy Yeulet

"Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives…. Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life." —William Martin

The eminent philosopher William James (1899) once observed quiet heroism in everyday working people, noticing "the great fields of heroism lying round about" him. He was mesmerized by small, seemingly inconsequential everyday acts that, in effect, exemplified unsung heroism in everyone.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, most people did not share William James's view of heroism. The status of "hero" has typically been reserved for a few elite people, for the best of humanity. When the twin towers came down in New York on 9/11, the heroes were the emergency personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice to save others. We've tended to be very selective in our use of the "hero" label—that is, until extraordinary circumstances have wakened us to the reality that all of us have a heroic role to play in society.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one such extraordinary circumstance. Here are two ways that the coronavirus crisis has cast a heroic light on every human being.

1. Doing nothing, staying at home

Social media memes abound regarding the heroism of staying home and doing nothing to contribute to the spread of the virus. One meme reads, "Ask not what staying home on the couch can do for you, but what staying home on the couch can do for your country." Another reads, "Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on your couch. You can do this."

This do-nothing route to heroism turns heroism on its head. Instead of doing something exceptional to become a hero, we can become heroic by simply doing nothing. Rather than risk our lives to save people, we are being heroic sitting on our couches, eating Cheetos, and watching Netflix.

2. Everyday workers: Cashiers, waste collectors, truck drivers, food deliverers, and more

It turns out that William James was right all along. The people who are most crucial to the functioning of our society are not the rich and the famous, but the everyday people who work hard to bring us food, deliver goods, pick up our trash, and make life possible for us all.

I am not at all minimizing the extraordinary heroism going on right now among our health care workers, toiling in hospitals, tending to the sick, and exposing themselves to great danger. These are traditional heroes who have always deserved heroic status and who are making remarkable sacrifices to keep us healthy and safe. They are heroes with a capital "H."

But this pandemic has cast a long-overdue spotlight on the hidden heroism of everyday people. Heroes are no longer seen as rare breeds but as pervasive among us all. Heroism, it seems, has been turned upside-down—ordinary people are now making life possible for us in ways that we never before could properly appreciate.

"Upside-down" may not be the best description for this phenomenon. We are all heroes, now, in our own small way, just by sitting at home and thus keeping the virus at bay. We are heroes simply by doing the jobs that once seemed small, but are now keeping us all afloat during this crisis. A pandemic may not turn heroism upside-down per se, but it transforms heroism into something expansive, inclusive, and universal.

I am calling this "inclusive heroism"—heroism that includes us all, because a pandemic makes us all important in keeping society healthy and running, in our own small ways.

Wrote William James:

"And yet there it was before me in the daily lives of the laboring classes. Not in clanging fights and desperate marches only is heroism to be looked for, but on every railway bridge and fire-proof building that is going up today… the demand for courage is incessant; and the supply never fails."


Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

James, W. (1899). Talks to teachers on psychology: And to students on some of life’s ideals. New York: Henry Holt & Co