On Thursday, June 5, shortly after 3:30 in the afternoon, inside a building on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, a student named Jon Meis pepper-sprayed a stranger and tackled him to the floor.
An unknown gunman had opened fire in the building, and in a moment of complete chaos, as the gunman reloaded a shotgun that had already killed one person and wounded two others, Jon Meis stepped up to stop him. Without doubt, as many witnesses and authorities close to the scene have said, Meis’s heroic act saved several lives.
I was watching the story unfold, asking myself the same question that many of us have probably asked at some point throughout the wake of tragedies like this. Could I have stopped the shooter? If I found myself in a similar situation — and now we start imagining the scenario — if someone walked through that door armed to hurt people, which direction would I go? Would I be willing to risk my own life in an attempt to impede the attacker?
Time to Reflect
Questions like these soon give a humble invitation for honest self-reflection. Asking whether we would do this or that is essentially asking ourselves what kind of person we are. We might envision possible scenarios and entertain ideal responses, but we really want to know whether we’re capable of courage. We want to know if we have that kind of sacrifice in us, if we could be a hero, too. Courage and sacrifice, after all, are what really drive a person to do that kind of thing.
Now, from our perspective, from just our imagining, it could seem that the opportunity to be a hero might stand as a strong enough incentive to put ourselves out there. We may wonder, and worry, that the motivation for praise could actually be the thing that bolsters our bodies toward the assailant. But this hypothesis, in my opinion, seriously undermines the sin of pride by loading it with virtue.
Yes, prideful self-absorption is everywhere, and its tenacious residue is always trying to spoil good motives. But though it’s powerful enough to lead men and women to do all kind of things — some of which might even have decent effects — it cannot be the decisive drive that makes someone willing to die for another. Pride degenerates human beings; it doesn’t propel them toward love, especially not the lay-down-your-life love that it takes to tackle an armed maniac.
Behind the mask of pride is cowardice, not courage. If what comes out of our mouths proceeds from the heart, so it is with our actions (Matthew 15:18). Those who contemplate these scenarios with the grandiose dreams of being called a hero are sure to be the ones who run and hide.
The Trajectory of Love
Who, then, are the ones like Jon Meis — a student considered a quiet and selfless guy by fellow classmates? What kind of person could actually be willing to step up in the face of danger? The answer may be getting clearer.
The person who’d be willing to put the good of others before himself in the event of great loss is the one who puts the good of others before himself in the hundred events of little losses everyday. “We are always becoming,” as Joe Rigney puts it, “who we will be” (Live Like a Narnian, 52). “Right this minute, we are headed somewhere, and sooner or later, we are bound to end up there” (52).
The person of great sacrifice, therefore, must be the person of little sacrifices — the person who has discovered that the life of sacrificial love is the life of greatest joy. The response of sacrificial love in the midst of panic is the end of a trajectory that gets played out as sacrificial love in the midst of normalcy. And that trajectory amid normalcy is not perpetuating the pain of loss, but is repeatedly searching for our joy in the good of others, such that “losses” are not what they’d otherwise seem. Traveling this road is the quest for pleasure that turns our fixation away from our cost to focus on what another might gain — which is ultimately a focus on what we might gain in their gain despite our cost.
The big moment of courageous action doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but has behind it tiny moments of simple sacrifice that have been trending that direction all along. In other words, if we can’t wash dishes and change diapers, we shouldn’t kid ourselves with the idea that we’d step in front of a bullet. If we are stingy with our time and money toward those in need, we’ll be stingy with our lives when a gun gets pulled on innocent people.
Stories like Jon’s should make us pause and ask whether we’d respond like he did. But the question isn’t what we’d do in a particular situation; it’s about what we’re doing now.