Courage doesn’t always look the same.
When I worked in the governor’s office and before that as a journalist, I had the honor to meet a lot of men and women who are true heroes: Soldiers, police officers, firefighters and ordinary people called to do extraordinary things.
But most of us will never be tested like that. We won’t chase an armed felon into the woods or brave enemy fire to save an injured comrade. We won’t rush into a burning building or face down an angry mob.
Instead of big questions, each with enormous consequences, courage for most of us is about little choices, about doing the right thing a little at a time, about persevering.
Consider the circumstances of three women I know. Three different stories. Three different lives.
The first has cancer. She’s been fighting it for about a year, overcoming multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and all the pain that goes along with it.
She has a tough job, filled with stress, as she tries to help people overcome their own hardships. She speaks for families that are left behind, tossed aside and too often forgotten.
When the struggle for a better life is the issue – someone else’s struggle – she never hesitates to stand with them. She never slows down, never lets up, even when she’s tired, or sick, or just run down.
To me, it’s courageous.
I have a friend on Facebook. We haven’t seen each other in maybe 20 years. She’s like a lot of those people we reconnect with on Facebook. We were once friends, but now we’re just voyeurs on each other’s lives from afar.
Earlier this month, her college-aged daughter was involved in a terrible accident. She was on a ventilator for a while and has gone through a three surgeries to repair terrible injuries, including a crushed pelvis.
Recently this woman posted: “Give me strength for I have none and help guide my heart for it is hurting.”
A simple prayer that I hope was answered. But she also shared a laugh that I think shows her strength.
She wrote: “A little something to lighten the mood, I would walk in (my daughter’s shoes) right now if I could, but her jeans are a different story. Oh my … I think I put on the wrong jeans this morning.”
To me, she’s courageous.
The third woman is Brenda Harvey. The tragedies she has endured are not her own.
Harvey served for six years as the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. It is the toughest job in state government.
DHHS is the easiest to kick around. It deals with broken lives and broken families, thousands of them.
It operates in a complex world where state and federal regulations, strict rules and requirements run into individual families. It’s the place where politics and rhetoric meet people, and the cold calculations of “managed care,” “efficiency” and “cost control” means saying no to someone in need.
When the department fails, it makes big news.
And when it succeeds, which is most of the time, children are adopted, the sick get care, the elderly have a place to live, and the public health is protected. All with little fanfare.
Over the last two weeks, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has found it politically expedient to attack the past administration – of which I was a part – and Harvey.
Most of us who know better have kept our heads down. It’s politics as usual.
Are there problems at DHHS? Yes. People are overworked. The department has been forced to navigate a global recession, increased demand for services and political upheaval with near flat funding, 300 fewer employees and ever-changing mandates from the state and federal governments.
But when an attempt was made to rewrite history, Harvey stood up to set the record straight.
Through a career in public service, her strength and hard work have saved countless lives and made Maine better.
To me, she’s courageous.
David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.