As part of that series, I interviewed his widow, Kelly Zainfeld, whose strength and resolve to eradicate the conditions that led to her husband’s death moved me.
I spoke with her and Dave LaFave, the agency’s fire chief, for hours. But before we began, Zainfeld made one thing very clear: She was not talking to me just to praise Mickel. This was not going to be just another soft-focus article about a brave, heroic first responder. And she wasn’t interested in mealy-mouthed platitudes about mental health awareness.
In fact, she told me straight out that “Awareness isn’t enough.”
Zainfeld and LaFave both spoke, with deep vulnerability, to something I’ve heard firefighters, police officers, and others in the broad “frontline-first-responder-essential-worker” community express: The complicated and confusing blend of pain and pride that comes with labels like “hero.”
To quote one of the articles:
Her husband “loved being outside with his boys, flying drones, throwing the football or baseball, fishing or crabbing,” Zainfeld said. “These people, these aren’t just firemen. These are husbands, spouses, sons, brothers, sisters. I think that gets lost because being a fireman is so honorable. But they’re people, and when they see bad things over and over again, we expect them to be this tough hero, but they have the same heart and same mind as every other person. That gets damaged. You can’t see that much bad and be okay … even the guys that have the right outlets still suffer.”
“Mike felt that something like PTSD was something that soldiers, and Marines, and Navy seals, and people who are in battle and combat have a reason (to develop),” LaFave said. “It was hard for him to make himself well because he was thinking he was letting people down.”
Those articles were oddly prescient. They came out mere days after Washington State began ordering citizens to stay at home and avoid contact with others due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19.
I saw the signs posted everywhere thanking frontline heroes. I read the stories about heroic restaurant employees dealing with out-of-control patrons yelling in their faces. I caught the headlines about people clapping for heroic medical workers as they came home from long, heroic days at the hospital.
Hero, hero, hero, hero. For a year, the word has rolled around in my head like a stone. Why does it bother me so much?
Heroes are by definition extraordinary and ideal. They don’t falter, or at least, they never falter for long. They swoop in to save the day when the rest of us non-heroes are faced with a challenge that’s beyond our abilities. They’re stronger and faster than the rest of us – and that can lead to the disturbing conclusion that they’re better than the rest of us.
Obviously, people who do the work we typically think of as “heroic” – putting out fires, stopping crime, keeping sick people alive – can execute truly heroic feats. It’s natural to celebrate the blood-pumping moments when someone with the right skills is in the right place to save another person.
And none of this is to suggest that COVID-exposed workers, from first responders to grocery store cashiers, aren’t doing brave, dangerous work during the pandemic. On the contrary: relegating them to the role of “heroes” allows us to ignore their health, pay and workplace and labor conditions. After all, heroes don’t falter. Heroes don’t quit. Heroes don’t complain.
This is why I have come to believe that to be a “hero” in modern parlance is to be chained to two seemingly incompatible perspectives from the public: “You are a great, brave person, totally beyond critique. We love you and would be lost without you.” And: “Stop crying, tie your boots and get to work fixing our problems. I don’t pay taxes so that you can whine about your issues.”
So I don’t like to use the word Hero anymore. Instead, to take a cue from Mr. Fred Rogers, I suggest we start talking about Helpers.
The hero-villain-victim dynamic is a storytelling element that makes for unhealthy relationships when we try to jam it into the real world. But a helper isn’t tied to those dysfunctional presuppositions.
A helper applies what they’re good at to making their community a little better for everyone else. A helper is brave, kind and inspiring, yes, but they’re not a superior alien being. And a helper knows what is a fair amount of their time and energy to give to others.
The best part: Unlike heroes, there’s always more room for helpers.
Of the endless issues, pandemic woes and social movements clawing at our minds for attention, I realize that this theoretical, linguistic change is not the most important one. I’m not asking you to excise the word “hero” from your library.
I only hope you reflect on the hard work and bravery that the helpers in your life are showing right now. Then, ask yourself: “What can I do?”
Footnote: While this piece includes elements of my previous news reporting, the opinions I expressed here are my own and should not be taken to represent those of anyone I’ve quoted.