Altruism– despite whether or not a person truly believes they are a selfless being– is embedded in human DNA. At any moment a certain situation can draw out a strength we never knew we had. Four summers ago, my untapped sense of altruism was put to the test as I was waiting for the bus in the Bronx. It is a known fact that New Yorkers love to drive like Speed Racer; regardless of the traffic signal, cars, trucks and motorcycles alike whizz by with no intention of stopping or slowing down. As I waited for the Bx30, a child on the other side of the street ran away from his mother and into the street. The headphones fell out of my ears and dragged across the concrete as I immediately cut my phone conversation with a friend short and dodged a few cars to pick up the cheery kid, who had no clue his life was in danger. As I handed him back to his mother, she screamed at him and went about her day. So did I. I put my headphones back in and continued my conversation, shocked at what had just happened. I didn't look at myself as a hero since it seemed like a basic thing to do.
Construction worker James Shaw Jr. felt the same way about his actions early Sunday morning (April 22). After a night out in downtown Tennessee, he ended up at a local Waffle House right before Travis Reinking, a 29-year-old Tremont, Ill. resident, opened fire. Shaw Jr., also 29, sprang into action, wrestling an AR-15 rifle from the barely-clothed gunman. While getting grazed in the arm, he was able to toss the weapon over the restaurant's countertop.
In that moment Shaw became a hero, which seemed to do more emotional harm than the incident itself. "I did that completely out of a selfish act," he said to reporters after the shooting. "I was completely doing it just to save myself. Now, me doing that, I did save other people. But I don't want people to think that I was the Terminator, or Superman or anybody like that, [...] I’d rather you regard me as James, you know, just a regular person because I feel like everybody can do pretty much what I did.”
"Those who possess altruism almost never pull through to see their heroism."
Except he isn't, and I'm not either. By no means am I comparing myself to a man who tackled a partially naked, deranged, armed man, but the incidents do have a few things in common. Shaw's stress hormones were released in that very quick moment Reinking attempted to reload his gun. With his sympathetic nervous system awakened, the father of a four-year-old girl went into fight-or-flight mode and decided to make a move. At the same time, witness Chuck Cordero was looking from outside of the restaurant and noticed the two men wrestling on the floor. He decided to run away, which is the stress his body responded to. The stress in my body on that very hot day four years ago pushed me to put one foot in front of the other while a child ran into oncoming traffic. Responses in flight-or-flight vary and at times, it can make us heroes.
In a 2004 study published in American Psychologist, researchers Selwyn Becker and Alice Eagly argue that heroism is broken down as a trait in all humans. They also perceived it as a risk-taking selfish act which, in our primal undertones, place us high on the totem pole. Through social constructs, a hero is seen as the person who has to save the day as opposed to a regular-shmegular guy who can save the day. “I almost didn’t make it to 30, if you really think about it,” Shaw told reporters. “And no matter how it would have went, it seemed like he didn’t care that he wasn’t going to make it to 30.”
It makes sense why Shaw wouldn't want the lofty title in the first place. To put those pressures on a man—a black man at that—is more than what it seems. In these days of young black men and women getting arrested for standing around, playing golf or working out, the idea to play Super-Save-a-Race isn't at the top of the 'To-Do' list. Between the layers of pressure lay insecurities about our superpowers. Of course people of color can be heroes. Just look at figures like Mari Copeny (known as Little Miss Flint), The Soledad Brothers and everyone's personal favorite hero, Black Panther. Aside from T'Challa, each one of those people were regular folks first before they made a decision to fall into the hero trope. To cape for the lives of others shouldn't be an underwhelming feeling. Instead, we should take pride in the moments that show us our natural strength.
"I think anybody could've did what I did if they're just pushed in that kind of cage," Shaw said. "You have to either react or you're going to, you know, fold." I, for one, am happy he reacted. Those who possess altruism almost never pull through to see their heroism. Shaw humbly did so, making him our American hero.