An everyday hero in waiting
“Would you like some garlic bread with that?”
An easy question. Everyone likes garlic bread.
Monday lunchtime. I’d popped to the nearby supermarket café to grab a hot meal with a friend and colleague. Our boss was out of the office that day and we were rewarding ourselves after a successful meeting.
We were queueing up with our school canteen trays, waiting for our humble portions of lasagne. Going over the meeting we’d just come from, we were dissecting our performance. I was probably thinking more about my garlic bread.
Unbeknown to me, an event was unfolding just ahead of us in the queue.
A young woman, perhaps a single-mother, had reached the till only to realise that the café was not accepting contactless card payments. She was in the middle of explaining that she didn’t know her pin code or have any cash on her either.
I couldn’t tell you if she was expressing frustration to the cashier or was simply embarrassed. I’m not sure how she hoped the situation would pan out. To be honest, I was oblivious to her and only pieced it together later, after what happened next.
A stranger, a whole two places behind my friend and I in the queue, walked up to the till, got out his wallet and proceeded to pay for her meal.
If the lady had been upset before, she was now a very different person.
Thanking him repeatedly, it was as if he had just offered to pay her children through college, not buy her sandwich. Fifteen minutes later, when I got up to leave, she would still be smiling. The cashier was visibly touched too. The server who had asked me about the garlic bread told the man it was a lovely thing to do.
It was a lovely thing to do.
In admiration, my friend and I found ourselves talking about it over lunch. When I got home that evening, I told this story of an everyday hero to my girlfriend. Here I am weeks later writing about it. Maybe the lady herself, the cashier and the server, went on to tell of this random act of kindness too.
The impact of small gestures like this one can be truly profound.
Open your eyes and step up
For the sake of a few pounds, this stranger not only fed a human being (no negligible feat) but brought joy to at least three others. More than that, speaking for myself at least, he inspired us by example. I wanted to be him.
When something like this happens, you have to ask yourself how this man was able to recognise the unfolding situation, standing much further away than I was, and act heroically, when I did not. It is not an easy question to face.
Was he an inherently good person? What did this make me?
Fortunately, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author imprisoned for 8 years in Stalin’s labour camps, writes:
The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human-being.
The thing is, I would have liked to have helped. Only I didn’t act.
I did not even register the lady’s predicament, the same way good people ignore homeless men and women on the street.
To simply ignore suffering – subconsciously or otherwise – is a fine tactic to evade uncomfortable moral dilemmas. To shield ourselves from the responsibility of inaction.
I could have so easily been the everyday hero of this story. So could you.
The hero is not a superior being with heightened morality. Morality does not amount to the values we hold (or claim to) but the actions we take to bring them into being.
To become an everyday hero and an all-round better person, we must first start by simply being aware of others. Not preoccupied with our garlic bread. We must train ourselves to look out for the person standing two places ahead of us in the queue.
Kindness starts with recognition and ends with action. It can be trained. You can start small and actively practise it. Look out for opportunities to prove yourself, whether it is holding the door open for someone or giving up your seat on the bus.
The significance of your effort will be worth more than you realise.
These small events might constitute the only chance you have in life to play the hero. For most of us, they probably will. Do not pass them up blindly waiting to prove your morality and courage on some greater challenge or evil.
It’s worth noting that random acts of kindness are not entirely selfless either. Do something nice for someone and you will feel good about yourself. Failing any sense of altruism, take this biological incentive as your motivation to help others.
To improve the world just a tiny amount.
A closing thought and special mention
I could have easily written this post about the man I used to get the bus with. Without fail, this everyday hero would jump up first to offer his seat to others, whoever they were. It could have been written about countless people.
Everyday heroes might not always get the recognition they deserve, but they do make an impression on the rest of us.
What I admired most about this individual was the immediacy of his action.
Most people would happily offer their seat on public transport to the elderly, young children or pregnant women. So I’m sure there were many other willing would-be heroes on that bus, myself included, yet this particular man always acted first.
On reflection, I think the difference between he and I is that he acted instinctually. The same instinct led the man in that café queue to intervene.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I would have had to consciously make these decisions, to pick the good deed. There’s nothing wrong with this – it is the act that really counts. But maybe it does say something about our morality. I’m sure the more we actively practise kindness, the more it becomes first nature to us.
We can all strive to be better. We are everyday heroes in training.