Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird defined heroism:
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 11)
Two real women come to mind who modeled this description – Miep Gies and Elisabeth Elliot.
By 1942, Miep Gies was licked – the Nazis had occupied her country, Holland, since 1940. A gun would not have helped her defy so mighty a force. But, she did what she could to save a few lives, humans who were marked for destruction because they were Jewish. She was a secretary of Otto Frank and she took a risk, hiding him and his family and a few others, and continuing to do what she did on a daily basis. She said:
"Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary."
Indeed she was an office secretary, one who defied the Nazi occupiers, and hid the family for two years, simply doing the next thing. Here’s the full story.
In 1955, Elisabeth Elliot, too, was licked when she received word her husband, Jim and four other men were speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador. (Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and their pilot, Nate Saint also perished) She had no gun; widowed, the mother of a toddler, she lived among the very people who slaughter her husband and fellow workers. Like Miep Gies, she got on with her work and mothering.
In her own words: (Emphasis added)
When I went back to my jungle station after the death of my first husband, Jim Elliot, I was faced with many confusions and uncertainties. I had a good many new roles, besides that of being a single parent and a widow. I was alone on a jungle station that Jim and I had manned together. I had to learn to do all kinds of things, which I was not trained or prepared in any way to do. It was a great help to me simply to do the next thing.
Have you had the experience of feeling as if you've got far too many burdens to bear, far too many people to take care of, far too many things on your list to do? You just can't possibly do it, and you get in a panic and you just want to sit down and collapse in a pile and feel sorry for yourself.
Well, I've felt that way a good many times in my life, and I go back over and over again to an old Saxon legend, which I'm told is carved in an old English parson somewhere by the sea. I don't know where this is. But this is a poem which was written about that legend. The legend is "Do the next thing." And it's spelled in what I suppose is Saxon spelling. "D-O-E" for "do," "the," and then next, "N-E-X-T." "Thing"-"T-H-Y-N-G-E."
The poem says, "Do it immediately, do it with prayer, do it reliantly, casting all care. Do it with reverence, tracing His hand who placed it before thee with earnest command. Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing, leave all resultings, do the next thing." That is a wonderfully saving truth. Just do the next thing!