When I was a police officer I was taught that officer safety is essential to public safety. In other words, if you respond to an incident with reckless abandon you might end up dead or seriously injured. Then you’d be no good to the people you’re there to help. To be of service to others we needed to take care of ourselves, but we weren’t excused from making the ultimate sacrifice. If need be, it was our job to put ourselves in harms way to save people from the threat of imminent death or grievous bodily harm. In particular, if that threat was from another person (as opposed to self-harm or running into a burning building).
I thought about that after reading about Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. solider of World War II.
Murphy, who was an orphan, left school after Grade 5 to work in the cotton fields to help support his siblings. At age 17 he join the army for the same reason. When he entered the war he put his life on the line many times for his fellow soldiers too. He did that so many times that within 3-years he had received every award the army had. He would often tell other troops to take cover while he would single-handedly fight off dozens of Nazis. When asked why he did it he said “they were shooting my friends.” Murphy put his life on the line many times for his family, his friends, and his country. He was wounded 3 times and contracted Malaria twice.
Murphy could have said to himself that he shouldn’t take so many risks, because he needed to stay alive for his family. That they’ll need him to live a long product life after the war. But he likely saw the war as an extraordinary event in which self-sacrifice was a necessity (his young age and low level of education might also have made it difficult for him to contemplate alternatives).
Murphy later became a movie star. But he was the lucky one. There were likely many others like Murphy, but died in their first, third, or fifth heroic effort.
Most of us won’t need to make calculations on that scale. But we do make them on a smaller scale. So it’s worth thinking about. Where should we draw the line between prioritizing ourselves and prioritizing others? Is it worth it to burn ourselves out and die early or should we take better care of ourselves so we can be around longer for others?
Circumstances will play a role in those decisions, but so will our willingness to be more mindful.