Heroes Are Human, Too

What did you do for Make a Difference Day (October 22 this year)? What are you doing to make a difference on a daily basis?

If your immediate response was “nothing”—and especially if you’re inclined toward comparing yourself to heroic first responders or prominent reformers—the first step toward making a difference may be expanding your definition of the phrase. First, though, let’s take a closer look at obvious “heroes,” and see why they also need differences made in their lives.

A Little Understanding, Please

As if the work itself isn’t stress enough, many professional difference-makers get little respect these days. News programs show police using unjustified force and teachers bullying special-needs students. Social-media users can accuse almost anybody of almost anything. Minority groups recognize their need for a voice among the changemakers, yet often regard it as a defection to the enemy when one of their own works in such a field.

Professional heroes who are still largely trusted find the “hero” image its own sort of burden. Firefighters and other first responders, who regularly see trauma close up while facing special pressure to “stay strong for others,” are 50 percent more likely than the general population to develop PTSD or major depression. At least one in four doctors believe their work has a negative effect on their mental health, over 10 percent develop substance use disorders, and over 300 die by suicide each year—while around 40 percent say they would hesitate to seek mental health treatment due to concern for their careers.

The unspoken rule is clear: for a first responder, staying flawless and indestructible is part of the job description. No sharing of feelings. No crying with the survivors mourning loved ones. No acknowledging that one is suffering from sleep deprivation. And no allowances for “only human” error—even though, however strong first responders may be and however hard they work to hide their weaknesses, they are as “only human” as the rest of us.

October 28 was officially Honoring the Nation’s First Responders Day, but first responders need encouragement and support every day of the year. Why not do something this week to make a difference for those who make a difference for so many?

  • Offer a smile and a kind word to the police officer on the street.
  • Write a letter to the editor, or an online post, putting in a public word for first responders’ personal needs (peer support groups, healthy working conditions, open permission to be human).
  • Ask your local fire department, police department, or hospital for names of first responders to whom you can send personal letters thanking them for their work—and acknowledging how hard it can be.
  • Attend events designed to introduce the public to emergency workers (your city or county website should have a calendar listing such programs—and if you can’t find any, drop a note suggesting one).
first responders transporting ill woman

Everyday Heroes

When you take time to encourage a first responder—or anyone else …

When someone is struggling with a disability or other challenge, and you openly believe in them when they can hardly believe in themselves …

When you meet a need no one else is meeting …

When you speak up on behalf of someone whose needs are being ignored …

When you show a little kindness or cheerfulness where it seems everyone is dwelling on the negative …

you’re a hero making a difference.

You don’t have to perform obviously “heroic” deeds. Just:

  • Be your own best self, working from your own best strengths.
  • Make a habit of practicing empathy.
  • Know your values and stand by them.
  • Leave room in your schedule for spontaneous “help somebody out” time.

And if you’ve ever had a teacher, relative, or friend who’s been a personal hero to you—send them a “thank you” message today. Encourage your children to do the same for their personal heroes. Everyone benefits where appreciation is shown—the prominent heroes, the everyday heroes, and all those they’re freshly motivated to continue helping.

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