Three men's smiling faces combined into a collage

Just a few days ago, I was asked to write a column about heroism. Heroism of the sort displayed routinely by those in the military, police and elsewhere.

And then the incident on the French train happened:

Recounting how he and two other American friends took down a gunman on a high-speed train in France, U.S. airman Spencer Stone said Sunday that he was awakened from a deep sleep before springing into action and subduing the attacker.

Stone said he turned around and saw a man holding an assault rifle and that it “looked like it was jammed and it wasn’t working.”

In his first remarks since Friday’s attack on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train, Stone said he and his friends took down the gunman before choking him unconscious.

“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end,” Stone said. “So were we.”

We all seem to agree this constitutes heroic behavior. The question, in my mind, remains: Is such behavior self-sacrificial, or selfless?

To figure this out, we have to look at what gives rise to such behavior.

Qualities of focus, skill, concentration and daring, for starters. Are these self-sacrificial qualities? It takes tremendous discipline to acquire and develop these traits. Why would a person seek to develop them? Out of selflessness? I don’t see how.

A non-self-interested person would not take his own life, or life in general, so seriously. People indifferent to themselves and their own lives tend to be mediocre or minimal in their efforts, at best; and downright negligent, at worse.

Think of an underachiever. We all know at least one. Are such people motivated by the pursuit of self-interest, self-development, and achievement-oriented self-fulfillment? Or are they lacking in such qualities?

Think of a negligent person. Someone who abuses drugs and alcohol, for example, and makes these the center of his existence. Such a person, in the worst case, will even break the law — not just drug laws, but basic laws against others’ rights to property, and even life.

Would you really call underachieving, or self-negligent persons selfish, i.e. self-interested? And would you really call the kind of heroes who willingly and capably saved the day in France last week self-sacrificers?

I would not.

Being willing to put your life on the line is, quite often, a matter of survival. That was true in this case, as in other cases like it. The three young men were determined to save their own lives as much as those around them — or at least, I would assume and hope that’s the case.

In the aftermath of this near disaster, I read that one person on the train commented (and I’m quoting from memory here): “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the right people were also there, and I survived because of it.”

I don’t know what it would be like to survive such a situation; but I’m quite certain if I had, I would say the same thing.

I would be grateful to these heroes not for their spirit of self-sacrifice, but for their willingness — in the months and years leading up to the attack  — to develop their physical and mental strength in such a way that, at a crucial juncture, they were able to save my life (along with others’ lives, including their own).

The same principle applies to the heroes who work in the police, fire, military and other areas of life. I am grateful to them for their dedication and purpose, integrity and resolve at being the best at what they can do. I don’t want them to do it for me. I want them to do it because it fulfills their life’s purpose, or at least part of it.

Someone sent me this quote: “To sacrifice one’s own safety in the service of others requires a courage that is rare. Those among us who do are Heroes.”

Accurately speaking, a “sacrifice” means giving up a greater good for a lesser good. These heroes saved their own lives, along with the lives of others. Everyone had the same interest here — survival. They were not required to sacrifice their own lives so that others could live. They had to risk their own lives so that they could live, and, in the process, others could live as well.

Quite frankly, those who survive and say, “Thank you for sacrificing for me” are flattering themselves. These heroes were, I would hope, first and foremost acting to protect their own lives, those of each other, along with the interests of their loved ones back home who would be psychologically crushed without them.

Here’s what one of the other heroes on the French train said:

“In the beginning it was mostly gut instinct, survival,” he said. “Our training kicked in after the struggle.”

Does that sound like willful self-sacrifice? It does not to me. It sounds like incredible bravery, quick thinking and hard-acquired skill.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not denigrating what these heroes did. I absolutely consider them heroes worthy of the name. But I don’t applaud and cherish them for the reasons people mostly claim. I applaud and cherish their dedication to self-interest and survival, both in that crucial moment and the years of training that led up to it.

The world is full of people who are not heroic. It’s not because they’re “too selfish.” It’s because they value themselves and their lives too little to rise to the occasion that a self-interested, self-responsible and utterly fulfilling and enjoyable life requires.

Sometimes the occasion required is dramatic and physical. That’s why these events are so noteworthy, reassuring and inspiring.

But most of life is not an emergency. It’s not an immediate physical danger the way it was for those people on that train, at that moment.

The real challenge — not just in emergencies, but in every hour and moment of your life — is honoring your values, your goals, your (chosen) relationships, and all else that makes your life enjoyable and important to you, as well as to relevant others.

The U.S. Ambassador to France said: “They are truly heroes. When most of us would run away, Spencer, Alek and Anthony ran into the line of fire, saying ‘Let’s go.’ Those words changed the fate of many.”

It was not their disinterest in themselves or their lives that kept them from running. It was their furious desire to live, for their own sakes, and to uphold life itself.

In his first remarks since Friday’s attack on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train, Stone said he and his friends took down the gunman before choking him unconscious.

“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end,” Stone said. “So were we.”

That’s the kind of dedication to survival, and life itself, that makes heroes worthy of the name what they are. There’s nothing self-sacrificial about it.


Pictured: Airman First Class Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, a specialist in the Oregon Army National Guard, and Anthony Sadler, a friend of the two.


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