Generous Orthodoxy  




Saturday, July 03, 2010

Hero? The Great Escape

Many people have complained about the overuse of the word "hero," especially since 9/11 when it became customary to refer to all the victims of the terrorist attacks as heroes. I thought about this during the past week, when Nico Smith died (see Tips on this website) and when I heard a lengthy interview on NPR about Dieter Dengler, who was the longest-held American to escape captivity (in Laos) during the Vietnam War. Christian Bale played Dengler in the movie Rescue Dawn, and a well-regarded documentary by Werner Herzog, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, tells the story also. Dengler's remarkable exploits are described in a new book, Hero Found, by Bruce Henderson. Henderson was interviewed at length on the Diane Rehm Show last week.

In one of my books I relate a conversation I had with a veteran of World War II who had won the Silver Star. He did not like to be praised or admired. He said this: "Nobody knows who deserves what." The more I think about this the more penetrating it seems to me to be. It is true Christian anthropology. Some people have more resilience, drive, stubbornness, energy, strength--whatever--than others, whether by nature or nurture. Certainly Dengler's capacities for survival must strike awe into almost everyone.

But at the end of the interview Henderson spoke of how Dengler later contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), one of the most dreaded afflictions in the world, and as a result took his own life. "Yes," said Henderson, pushed by Diane, seemingly reluctant to talk about it, "He did that. He couldn't escape." I haven't read Henderson's book, but this seemed significant to me. The urge to escape drove Dengler as other men and women are driven by other things, ranging from the urge to paint, write, or perform on the stage to a passion for running marathons, riding motorcycles, or collecting ever more sophisticated electronics. The urge to escape kept Dengler alive. (The group of men gathered in the Nazi camp in The Great Escape [based on an actual episode] were not a random collection. They had been sent to that camp because of their passion for escaping.)

Tony Judt, the noted public intellectual, has ALS. He cannot move a single muscle. He speaks only with artificial assistance. For the last few months, he has been dictating long pieces of commentary for The New York Review of Books, and his book Ill Fares the Land has recently been published. In the first two NYRB pieces, he described his condition in harrowing detail, making it possible for the reader to imagine--at least in part--what it is like to be imprisoned in an immobile body, unable even to scratch or find a comfortable position, let alone take care of himself. After that, he ceased to write of his condition, focusing all his attention on philosophical and ethical analysis of the issues of our time. It is by any standard an awe-inspiring achievement. Surely we can describe this as heroic.

But who knows who deserves what? Judt is driven to write and to think just as Dengler was driven to escape. Stephen Hawkings, who has had ALS longer than anybody, has been able to continue his world-class scientific work for decades. Both these men may have been blessed with psychic resources that apparently Dengler, in the end, did not have. We should be more careful, it seems to me, about the way we throw around the word "hero." Human nature is an astonishingly complicated affair. Every one of us is compromised in some way, and every one of us disappoints in some way.

Christian anthropology tells us that the only true escape from the prison of this world of Sin and Death is by the action God has performed for us from the other side of the locked door, from outside the prison wall, with a light greater than that of the watchtower with its searchlight forever seeking to expose us. Into this prison came Jesus Christ, to take his part as one of us, in order to do what we could not do for ourselves. He has granted us an everlasting escape into the great illimitable expanse of God's Kingdom where there will be no need for any more escapes because there will be life in abundance for all.

The Christian who chooses life instead of death, in whatever form that takes--whether fighting apartheid or bearing affliction with gallantry--bears witness to this Great Escape.