How To Be A Hero

Randomly we hear in the news about a person who steps forward – often when others don’t – to take a heroic step of altruism. It was a shock to me to discover that my brother, this week, was that person. Dan, a teacher, was driving my young nephew after school when he saw a car engulfed in flames, with five or so people watching it burn. Dan saw what he thought was the silhouette of a person in the driver’s seat of the burning car, pulled over, ran to ask the bystanders if that truly was someone sitting in the flaming vehicle – and was told, “yes.” Three of the five people had already called 911.

A stock photo of a burning car - not the one my brother ran to, although his description sounds the same...

Wikimedia Commons

A stock photo of a burning car – not the one my brother ran to, although his description makes it sound the same…

My brother ran to the car, and had to crouch down to gulp a clean breath of air, then, holding his breath, cover his hand and grab the blistering door handle and give it a yank. Dan pulled a very young man out of the driver’s seat by the guy’s armpits. The young man was ashen and covered in blood, and Dan didn’t know if he was still alive or not.

As my brother dragged him away from the flaming car, which had begun to make popping sounds, some teens that my brother had taught pulled over and ran to help. Dan told them to hurry, the car might blow, and to help him drag the young man to a place behind a dumpster in case it did.

When the fire trucks, and ambulances, and police arrived, it turned out the poor guy had been shot in the head. It’s still not clear how the car became engulfed in flames, and an arson squad is on the case. The young man was taken to the trauma hospital and stayed in critical condition. He stayed that way long enough for his family to say good-bye, and then to choose to donate his organs to save the lives of many more people. He passed away after only a couple of days.

You can see the link of Dan being interviewed and the family thanking my brother here.

Why are humans altruistic? How is it that we care enough to step forward into danger, or to donate, in the midst of grief, the ultimate gift of life from our loved one?

When I told my brother how proud I was of him, his reply was that he just couldn’t stand the idea of standing and watching a person burn to death. And he really couldn’t stand the idea of his very young son watching his father stand there, watching a person burn to death. And all he could keep thinking was how young the guy was – that he could be his own teen daughter, my teen daughter, that they were about the same size.

Sometimes it is, as my brother described it so well, a part of the way we see ourselves, a deep core of who we are and what we value.

Sometimes it is purely the incredible ability that we all have to put yourself into the skin of another person – to feel their crackling heat, and their heart-shuddering fear. Altruism, you could say, is a form of neurologic teleportation – you inhabit another person’s senses and feel the world from their driver’s seat. It is an amazing gift that’s freely available to us all. But we must exercise it, or it, like any other neurologic function, will atrophy over time.

So what about you? And me? How do we exercise our altruism urge?

Maybe some of you are thinking, well, sure, that kind of heroic crisis happens in the news every so often. Maybe, like me, you thought it was the kind of thing that only happens from time to time in New York subway stations. Never in small suburban by-roads.

My brother would now tell you otherwise.

Maybe you can, like the victim’s family, make a choice for life in the midst of death. But donating your loved one’s organs isn’t a situation we’d want to wish on anyone. You, however, can sign up yourself now!

Instead, how about taking small steps? Last week I tweeted about the joy of going to the GAIA fundraiser to help people living with HIV/AIDS in desperately poor Malawi. Once you dive in and discover this world – you keep looking around for the catch. For the price of a dinner out, you get a fabulous meal, celebrity sightings, and that wonderful thing that is (in the words of MasterCard) absolutely priceless. The warm glow of altruism. I even felt the heat of it across the country when I learned about my brother.

So NOW, before you think any further about it, go to the Episcopal Charities website and buy a ticket to the May 21st Night of Light. What a deal! A night of fabulous food, marvelous music (even dancing!) and, by God, you get to do all this INSIDE Grace Cathedral – a once in a lifetime opportunity. Only $100 total. Cheaper than a meal, a movie and a babysitter. Think of the way you’ll feel, the joy you’ll get from not only a lovely evening but a chance to feel good about yourself afterward. And a chance to end real poverty close to home.

I’ll be there – so come up and say hello. Maybe, as the music swells, together we can do a joyous dance to the glories of altruism. Or, if you’re feeling flush, you can pony up for one of the $1,000 tickets and we can sit and share stories over dinner. I hope to see you there.

Do you think altruism comes naturally? Sound off in the comments section. Want to learn more ways to flex your altruism muscle? Stay tuned for the next articles in this series. Doc Gurley is the only Harvard Medical School graduate, ever, to be awarded the coveted Shoney’s Ten Step Pin for documented excellence in waitressing, and is both a Board-and Bored-Certified internist. You can get more health posts at, or jump on the Twitter bandwagon and follow Doc Gurley. Also check out Doc Gurley’s joyhabit and iwellth twitter feeds – so you can get topic-specific fun, effective, affordable tips on how to nurture your joy and grow your personal wellth.

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