Canadian headlines this week are shouting about loneliness and trauma, reporting only a brief segment of a speech on dignity and motherhood.
Kevin Vickers, former Sergeant-at-Arms and hero of the October 22nd Parliament Hill shooting, spoke to graduating students about his career and the lessons he learned in the days following the shootout with young Muslim convert Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, which ended with the latter’s death.
However, the newspapers’ sensational block titles betray a misunderstanding of a heroism more lonely than Vickers’ at 5:30 am on October 23rd.
It’s true that he told the students: “I went home that night and I had a hard time going to sleep, and I woke up at around 5:30 in the morning and I was crying. It was the loneliest moment of my life.”
But, just a little later in his speech, he described a moment of insight during a visit to his mother: “It kind of occurred to me that God, after he was crucified, the first person he let into the kingdom of heaven was the man crucified next to him, a convicted criminal. So with my grandchildren in my arms I said a prayer for Michael.”
Kevin Vickers is unquestionably a hero, but there are two ways to define heroism. The hero could be the person who rises above the crowd, or the one who looks at the crowd and recognizes persons.
Pop culture tends to glorify the first and dismiss the second. We love to laud the tragic, solitary hero and cheer for individualism. Music and literature are full of examples, but the most obvious is Alesso’s “Heroes”, which has been on Billboard’s Top 100 for the last 15 weeks:
Everyday people do
Everyday things but I
Can’t be one of them
We are a different kind
We can do anything
We could be heroes.
As the man who stopped Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in his terrorist attack, Vickers stands symbolically above the crowd. Many newspapers are trying to keep him there, but the man himself insists, mysteriously, that he’d rather be on the ground with the everyday people doing everyday things.
His father taught him that, “regardless how repulsive the crime, you always respect the dignity of the person,” and he credits this respect for the 17 confessions to murder he heard as an RCMP officer. Far from emphasizing his superiority to the crowd, Vickers places himself at their service.
His physical bravery in approaching and disarming the shooter has been celebrated repeatedly. Heroism is self-sacrifice for the sake of another, and on October 22nd Kevin Vickers did just that. Yet four days later, when he knelt and prayed for the man who tried to kill him, the former long-serving Mountie was doing what he believed to be a greater service for someone ostensibly less deserving than the MPs on Parliament Hill.
Vickers’ advice to the graduating class had nothing to do with standing independently above, but rather was about seeking help from people who are constantly stooping to stay at the level of the small. “You’re going to have your October 22nd,” he told the students, “and you just always remember that your mother is there who loves you, who will protect you, and always stand with you.” According to Vickers, it was his mother who saved him after he saved Parliament Hill, by phoning every day until he agreed to come home. She knew before he did how good it would be for him to come home to his extended family and to have time alone without fear of loneliness.
A still figure above the crowd, however interesting and independent in person, is as faceless as the masses below: distance makes everything blurred. The second definition of heroism, the one that Vickers promotes, is made precisely of everyday people doing everyday things. True heroes like Kevin Vickers and his mother distinguish themselves by consistently serving others despite the difficulties.
Building pedestals is, after all, very lonely work – even if it makes good headlines.
Rachel Ottenbreit is an undergraduate student and freelance writer in Toronto, Canada. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Slider image: Kevin Vickers, as Sergeant-At-Arms, leading the Speaker’s Parade into Parliament in 2012. Credit: The Hill Times / Jake Wright