Ranulph Fiennes tries to answer this question in an interview in today’s Times. Fiennes, the oldest Briton to climb Everest and a man who hacked off own fingers after suffering frostbite, has just written a book on those who showing bravery in the field of combat. It’s hard to think of someone better qualified to do so – but he dismisses the epigram. Instead, he argues that heroism is as much about motivation as it is about action.
Fiennes was awarded a bravery award in 1970, for fighting Marxist guerillas in Oman. Not only did he calmly rally his men, he also exposed himself to gunfire. But he says, his motivation was far from glorious – ‘My diaries at the time made it absolutely clear that I was doing it out of fear of ridicule’. Fiennes argues that heroism demands a different rationale. It means putting onself at risk against a backdrop of terror…’people who do almost superhuman things … and…make me feel truly proud to be a fellow human being’.
It’s a fascinating perspective – but one that’s almost impossible to prove. The difficulty is that we can’t measure motives in the same way as activity. Two people may behave in exactly the same way, but for opposite reasons. Not only are the impulses of our hearts hidden to others – we can also hide them from ourselves. As Jeremiah says ‘the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure: who can understand it?’
In one of the stories in The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes about a ghost woman who has taken a bus from hell to heaven to visit her son. He explains to her that “…no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”
To me and to many others, Fiennes looks like a hero. He would disagree. But in the final analysis, neither judgement will stand. Instead it is the Lord alone who ‘will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts’, (1 Cor 4:5).