Running into the Fire

Published Date: June 23, 2023 | Topics: Philosophy, Religion


This piece originally appeared in National Review‘s June issue

When I was twelve years old, I watched my father rush into a burning building to rescue a paraplegic man in a wheelchair.

In the summers, we lived in a little house beside a creek in the village of Mt. Morris, in the heart of the Appalachians. About a half acre of field separated us from the next house along the creek. The paraplegic man and his wife lived there. He was, perhaps understandably, an embittered person. He had been injured in a coal-mining accident when he was a young man and only recently married, and he and his wife did not get along. My brothers and I often heard the couple loudly (and profanely) quarreling. Often, she would simply jump in her car and drive away. He would shout after her, sometimes threatening to kill her. Sometimes he would threaten to kill himself.

My parents did their best to shield us from all the drama, but we heard (and watched) quite a lot of it.

One day, at about three in the afternoon, as they were quarreling, she ran out to the driveway, hopped into her car, and drove away. He shouted after her, as usual, with all the usual threats. After a few minutes, things got quiet, as they always did.

Then, suddenly, we heard an explosion and the house burst into an enormous ball of flame.

He had closed the windows and doors, turned on the gas, and lit a match.

My mother grabbed the baby; my terrified and weeping seven- and five-year-old brothers instinctively ran to her and to my grandmother, who was with us; my ten-year-old brother and I tried to pretend not to hear my mother calling us to come to her as we stood there in excitement and amazement watching my dad as he dashed across the field and disappeared into the burning house (despite my grandmother’s furious pleas to him not to do it — “Joseph, Joseph, you have five little children. That man is no good anyway!”).

My father found the man in the kitchen, on the floor. The blast had blown him out of his wheelchair. He was over six feet and probably weighed 200 pounds. My father was 5’ 9” and weighed about 165. But Dad somehow lifted the man — deadweight — and carried him out of the house. He was injured but alive. In the meantime, my mother had called the local volunteer fire department and the firemen and medics soon arrived.

My dad, a World War II veteran who had served valiantly in Normandy and Brittany, didn’t think twice, despite my grandmother’s pleas, about whether to risk his life by rushing into that burning building. He certainly didn’t consider whether he should go or, instead, ask my mother to do it. It was, as far as he was concerned, a man’s job, and, since he was capable of doing it, it was his duty. I have no doubt that my mother, who is a brave woman, would have attempted the rescue had my father not been there or had he himself been disabled. (She probably would not have succeeded — she would not have been able to lift and carry the man. And she might have lost her life in attempting the rescue.) But since my father was there, she did not consider it a question whether he or she should go. Of course he would be the one. He was the man.

I doubt that the situation would have been different in any culture known to human history.

So, tell me, what do you think? Should my mom and dad have flipped a coin to decide who should go? Or should it have been my dad, but only because he was bigger and stronger and therefore more likely to succeed? I assure you, my parents didn’t pause to think that out. My father went because he was the man. My mother did not volunteer to go in his place because . . . he was the man.

Is the lesson to be drawn from this true story that my parents are sexists or victims of a culture of sexism? Is the attitude they shared about the man’s role in these circumstances (viz., to rush into the burning building to rescue the paraplegic man) and the woman’s role (viz., to gather, protect, and comfort the children) a bad attitude? Is it a vestige of the benighted days of male supremacy and “the patriarchy”?

I’m against male supremacy and any form of male leadership that treats men as superior to women or men’s interests and well-being as more important than women’s (and vice versa). I’m in favor of the education of girls on terms of equality with boys (though I do not object in principle to single-sex education as an option — for boys or girls), and I’m for ensuring that women have opportunities to work and excel in the fields and professions of their interest. I’m for social accommodations for women so that motherhood is not discouraged or disfavored, and for the fair and prudent use of regulation to secure or ensure such accommodations. I’m for fairness to women and girls and protecting women’s and girls’ sports and spaces.

But none of this means that I do not recognize differences between men and women, including differences that are relevant to social roles. Indeed, some of it is predicated on there being such differences. It is because men and women are different in important ways that I defend the integrity of women’s sports and spaces and oppose permitting men, including those who “identify” as women, to compete in women’s athletics or enter women’s shower facilities, shelters, or prisons.

I suspect that many of the relevant differences between men and women have a biological basis that manifests itself in what the ancient Greeks called thumos — the spiritedness that one finds in both sexes but that tends to be stronger in males than in females. When directed or channeled constructively, it produces (or, better, helps to produce — the matter is complex) the behavior my father exemplified when he rushed into that burning house. Where it has not, however, been properly channeled and integrated into one’s character in a constructive way, it produces aggression and other characteristics that account for why the overwhelming majority of murders and other violent crimes are committed by men, not women.

My father was always a protector, and he brought up his five sons to be protectors. It was not just that we were taught to be protective of girls; nor did he teach us to view girls as weak or as “damsels in distress”; we were taught, and expected, to go to the aid of anyone — boy or girl, young person or older person — who needed protection. My father — and my mother — were not satisfied simply that we not be bullies or not participate in bullying when others were doing it. We were to confront the bullies, no matter who the victim of the bullying was. Even if it wasn’t a matter of bullying, if another kid was being neglected or made to feel inferior or small or excluded, we were to very conspicuously befriend him and lift him up.

By precept and, as the story of the burning house shows, by example, my father was constantly shaping our character and forming us to be protectors. It was all about channeling thumos. His rambunctious gang of boys, growing up in the hills of West Virginia, were full of spirit, and he wanted that spirit to be directed properly. He knew that the best way to prevent a boy from becoming a predator is to raise him to be a protector.

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