“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I require any slave to be that heroic, that self-sacrificing. But I have, by God, known slaves who were that heroic, and I know the tales of the ones who were that self-sacrificing.”
– Cathy Montaigne, War of Honor
Honor Harrington Series, by David Weber
You know something I notice?
Villains and traitors say, “You would have done the same.”
Heroes and martyrs say, “Anyone would have done the same.”
And everyone in between says, “It’s what anyone would do.”
It’s interesting how we all say it, and we’re all wrong.
It’s been on my mind lately, since I made a point to my young nephew, so full of promise, that our choices and our attitudes are always ours, no matter our situation.
Cathy Montaigne is a relatively minor character, at least as far as I’ve thus far read, but I absolutely love her. She is fierce and principled and firm in her resolve to hold true to those principles. This precise quote comes from a scene where she is speaking to an escaped slave… or, rather, a slave who bought her way to freedom by way of betrayal. She sold hundreds of escaped slaves back to the people they escaped from, just for her own freedom and a bit of money, and the fate of those people does not bear thinking on.
Thus, when Cathy says this, she is framing her judgment of this individual, and stripping away the most common excuse, because she has seen both ends of the spectrum. She knows heroism can be far too much to expect, especially when one’s life is practically Hell itself, but she also understands that there are heroes, and, even more, that there is a wide difference between “failing to be a hero” and “actively being a traitor.” Thus, the traitor really has no excuse.
Heroes are the proof that heroism is possible, and it is always a matter of choice. That’s why villains hate heroes so much, for stripping away their excuses. Their cloak is ripped from them, their hiding place laid bare. They can’t hide behind the idea that anyone would have done the same in their place, because others have already done differently in similar situations.
And, really, doing exactly the same thing as someone else just isn’t a part of human nature, is it? Not that we can’t act similarly – we often do – but we are not identical, and never will be.
If you put two people, or three, or however many, in exactly the same situation, odds are none of them will react in exactly the same way. Some will act sooner, some will act smarter, some will act bolder, or any number of things. Some will look after themselves first, some will help others first, some will lead, some will follow, some will disrupt, and so on. The differences multiply practically without limit.
Simply put, the fact that we are all different is proof that our choices are not dictated by our circumstances, and therefore we cannot use our circumstances as an excuse.
So, as much as one might say, “Anyone would have done the same,” that’s not really true, is it?
A hero’s heroism really is their own doing, and they should let themselves feel good for it every once in awhile. That said, of course, there are those who – again, a difference in choices and attitude – either let their egos boil over, or remain humble. Myself, I think a hero should accept credit for their deeds, and use it to motivate themselves to further excellence. Not that they have to change their lives or keep doing spectacular things, but that they should always strive to be their best selves… like everyone else ought to. 🙂
And a villain’s villainy, no matter their tragic backstories or misguided goals, is also theirs. They can’t escape the truth that somewhere in their actions, a decision was made. Now, I believe very much in redemption, but that does not happen without accepting responsibility, and making a different choice.
We don’t always fall into either category so easily, of course, filling out the distance between. For the most part, I’d say we shouldn’t let ourselves feel bad if we don’t think we’re as good as others… though, conversely, we really should not linger in that place where all we can say is that we’re “not as bad” as someone else. I would simply say that we ought to do the best we can… and maybe we’ll surprise ourselves with how much good we can do.
Whoever we choose to be, though, we do make that choice on our own, and we are responsible for it.
If nothing else, I intend to always own up to that much, at least.