Is self-sacrifice instinct or moral choice?

Firefighters often hurl themselves into the flames to save others at great risk. But is this the same as a parent protecting a child?  (Photo courtesy of Denis Janssen. Use allowed by CC 3.0 License)

Firefighters often hurl themselves into flames, at great risk of death, to save others. But is this the same as a parent protecting a child? (Photo courtesy of Denis Janssen. Use allowed by CC 3.0 License)

I’ve always been amazed by accounts of selfless sacrifice – of those who give their lives so that others might carry on.

Inherent in this is a question that perplexes and fascinates: how much are these acts rooted in instinct versus a predetermined outcome that people carry inside them based on their value system?

This week I pondered that mystery while surfing the Web, There, I stumbled upon a news report from a few years back.

The story concerned Brian and Erin Wood, struck by tragedy on the Friday before Labor Day in 2010. According to a segment on NBC’s Today Show, Erin, 31 – seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child – recounted the accident where Brian, 33 chose to end his life.

The couple from North Vancouver, B.C., was traveling on Whidbey Island, Wash., when an oncoming SUV with four occupants lost control over the center line and flew head-on toward their Suburban.

Erin said that Brian hit the brakes and swerved the vehicle hard to the right, ensuring that he would take the brunt of the impact. She was bruised and blackened. The Wood’s unborn son survived unharmed.

Brian was pronounced dead at the scene, as were two of the truck’s occupants. Court documents revealed that authorities found a variety of drugs as well as a handgun in the SUV.

The story gave me pause, and not just because of the unnecessary death.

Erin expressed devastation at Brian’s loss but gratitude that he gave her and their soon-to-be-baby boy a chance at life. This dichotomy is at the root of the human condition, demonstrating how complex and contradictory we are in the ways we act in, and view life.

Perhaps Erin experienced survivor’s guilt, especially after her son was born. While having a living legacy to Brian’s courage, it’s difficult to fathom the burden that she must carry, perhaps forever.

As a boy, I first felt a pit in my stomach after reading historical accounts of World War II Marines in the Pacific campaigns hurling themselves on grenades. Their bodies took the blast impact and saved nearby comrades.

Like the story of Brian Wood, I began to seek out such accounts because they were at the same time illogical, romantic, and grotesque. In the comfort of my middle class upbringing, it was difficult to find a proper context for actions that defied human reason, but still drew admiration and respect.

Years later, as an adult and having served in uniform, I began to appreciate the bond that forms between those who are shoulder to shoulder in hellish conditions.

Historically, even collective sacrifices are notable. One such event was in 480 BC, when the 300 Spartans stood in defiance at Thermopylae against a half-million Persian invaders to set an example for, and unite, the Greek city-states.

This connection extends to many variations on a common theme: Helping others and dealing with adversity while doing so.

Fire, police, and rescue workers running up the stairwells of the World Trade Center on 9-11 come to mind. A wave of humanity flowed one way to safety while the few swam upstream without pause or hesitation. Or passers-by who dive into rough waters to pull people out, and die in the process.

These, and many others like them, are the best among us.

The one thread woven in all such tapestries is the individual who, officially or otherwise, swears to look out for the common good. However, is that the same ethos as Brian Wood’s, or does blood – family and love – occupy a different seat in the hall of self-sacrifice?

After watching Erin Wood’s visceral interview, I’m left to wonder.

My mother once asked me what was the one thing parenthood changed in my life. I told her that the birth of my son Jason had made me less selfish, and gave me a sense of something bigger than my own needs. It’s a responsibility and duty that I’d take to the grave, even though Jason is now an adult.

But I have no idea if I, or anyone, could ever live up to Brian Wood’s example, whatever we claim beforehand. The armed forces might have inculcated me with an ethos of selflessness, but parenthood is something far more primeval.

When I was a young Army officer fresh out of college, I prayed never to have to find out if I was up to that level of performance.

As a father, though, I hope my instincts would have made me swerve that van hard to the right. Somehow, I could dream of my son before I died a few seconds later, a lifetime before his began.



Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.