As the Russian invasion picked up speed on Feb. 24, the attacking troops inched closer to the southern Ukrainian province of Kherson, announcing their approach with a column of tanks. Vitaly Skakun, an engineer in a Ukrainian battalion, knew the situation was dire.
To stop the offensive, Ukrainian planners opted to blow up the Henichesk road bridge, which Russian tanks would have to cross to move further into Kherson. Skakun volunteered for the job. He ventured out to the bridge and set mines on its span, knowing they’d likely detonate before he could escape. Explosions rang out moments later, confirming the worst. “A brother of ours was killed,” read the Armed Forces of Ukraine statement about Skakun. “His heroic deed significantly slowed the enemy’s advance.”
After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video of himself defending Kyiv in olive drab, his heroism grabbed countless headlines. Less heralded are the hundreds of “ordinary heroes” like Skakun, putting themselves on the line for a larger cause. The nameless woman in Kherson who, unarmed, directly confronted the Russian invaders and the havoc they’d come to wreak. The 13 Ukrainian guards on Snake Island who, given the chance to save themselves by surrendering to Russia, retorted, “Russian warship, go f— yourself!” (Reports a few days later indicated, happily, that the guards were still alive.)
Ordinary heroes aren’t on just one side of the border, either. According to some reports, Russian troops were refusing to take part in combat in Ukraine, though they knew this decision could prove lethal under Vladimir Putin’s regime. Likewise, thousands of Russians protested the war in Moscow and St. Petersburg, steps from phalanxes of riot police who could have taken them out at any time.
Hollywood primes us to think of heroes as special or set apart, but these heroes compel us because of their ordinariness, not in spite of it. They take awkward selfies like us. They agonize, like us, about whether to confront wrongdoing, unsure what whirlwinds they might reap. They defy a culture of self-exaltation, of “like” counts and face tuners. And in proving what normal people can do under extreme duress, they throw down the gauntlet, challenging us to new acts of courage. “Most heroes are ordinary,” Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, likes to say. “It’s the act of heroism that’s extraordinary.”
Larger-than-life figures and fictional superheroes, while important in their own way, insulate us from the need to surpass our existing limits. (Of course you can’t save the city: You don’t have X-ray vision or overflowing bank coffers, and you can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound.)
The ordinary hero, by contrast, ups the ante for all of us. When heroes are, indeed, just like us, the question “Why not us?” becomes exceedingly hard to answer. If a group of 13 ordinary Ukrainians offered the chance to save their own necks could turn it down to defend their people, what excuse do we have to shrink from smaller, everyday acts of bravery? How can we not stand up to a subway bully flinging racial slurs or blow the whistle on a boss’s corrupt kickback scheme?
Research confirms that acts of moral integrity can be contagious. When people observe others they consider to have high integrity, they often go on to emulate those role models’ ethical examples. Studies of heroic rescuers in World War II show that they consistently had selfless role models in their lives. From this standpoint, the heroes of Ukraine could be starting a ripple effect of everyday courageous acts, the consequences of which they can’t now imagine.
Besides the concrete good they do, the value of such courageous acts — even small ones — is that they tend to scale up over time. Acts of everyday selflessness, as Zimbardo notes, help prepare us for the demands of outsized heroic acts, should they become necessary. It’s hard to fathom just how fortunate most of us are not to have to choose between defending our people and living another day, as many of Ukraine’s ordinary heroes have had to. But their example — and the way it motivates us to push past discomfort — can help us grow equal to the moral challenges ahead.
Elizabeth Svoboda, a writer in San Jose, Calif., is the author of “What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.” Follow her on Twitter @Svobodster.