By Roger W. Bowen
Sarah Blake’s best-selling novel “The Guest Book” is a story about three generations of an old blue-blood family that buys half of an island in Penobscot Bay for a song in the 1930s and relies on it as the perfect summer refuge from their whirligig lives in New York City.
As is often the case with folks from away who turned “summer” into a verb, the early generations make the money, subsequent generations spend it away. One of the family members of the third generation, Evie, has become a history professor just as the raucous decade of the 1960s is about to begin. She opens a fall class with undergraduates about the meaning of history, knowing that most of her students have “learned” that history is the stuff made by heroes.
Evie explains: “Heroes are the people who are bigger than their times. Most of us are not. History is sometimes made by heroes, but it is also always made by us. We, the people, who stumble around, who block or help the hero out of loyalty, stubbornness, faith or fear.”
Such wisdom is not to be wasted on undergraduates alone, especially in this uncommon time in our own history when the accolade of “hero” is used to describe “frontline workers” and “first responders,” as well as victims of the virus who, fortunately, survive. Doctors and nurses, who are needed as never before, and who knowingly expose themselves to the deadly virus, are applauded publicly and thanked privately. Sanitation workers, who clean the surfaces of hospital equipment, garbage men who dispose of contaminated materials and graveyard workers who bury the dead seem to get less attention.
“Hero” is an overused word these days. So is “hopefully.” Their overuse intersects for a reason: the public is looking for a silver bullet to slay the virus so they can go back to work, earn money, feed the family, end social isolation (especially if they have youngsters at home) and live a “normal life.” So politician after politician, from the president to most governors and mayors, employ “hopefully” in news conferences and interviews to show that they too are unsettled by current events and seek a return to normalcy. And for the most part these politicians and elected officials reserve their praise for those experts — public health officials, doctors, nurses, even hated big pharma — who have the necessary training and ability to deliver us from the advancing plague.
If a large American pharmaceutical company invents a vaccine soon to destroy COVID-19, some observers will credit it with an heroic accomplishment; if a Chinese drug company delivers the goods, these same observers will likely claim “it was about time since they were responsible” or, more generously, extend words of gratitude for stopping the sickness and death. Equally predictable, if an American drug company, motivated as much by profit as by humanitarian concerns, wins the race for a vaccine, our “wartime” President will remind all Americans that he himself is the real hero for having pressured them to develop a vaccine in record time. (“So, please, please vote for me in November.”)
In fact, although hardly heroic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, will be one of the few elected politicians who faithfully exercised the responsibilities of his office — speaking directly to the electorate, explaining the science behind the public policies, urging his fellow citizens to think about others before refusing to wear a face mask as they spit out the word “freedom” at rallies (yes, we all saw Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”), and subtly reminding all of us of our humanity. Cuomo, serving the public, is no Trump, who serves only himself and his political aspirations.
History is made by us, Sarah Blake through Evie says, but not everyone who acts in times of peril is a hero. We all share in common some degree of hope for a healthy and just society composed of people paid to do their job to the best of their ability, for fair compensation, and despite the dangers. It goes with the territory, and for that we all owe them a debt of gratitude.
Roger W. Bowen is a former professor and college president. He lives in Prospect Harbor.