Dishwasher Courage: Charles Ramsey, Momentary Hero

This week’s rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michele Knight after a decade of captivity in their abductor’s Cleveland home has made an internet celebrity out of Charles Ramsey, the McDonald’s-munching dishwasher whose colorful interviews captured the heart of America and added a bit of comic relief to an otherwise gut-wrenching story.

Three women, kidnapped and abused, surviving rape and childbirth… living in chains in a house next door to a making-ends-meet dishwasher who likes salsa music and has enjoyed cookouts with the unknown abductor-next-door. Ramsey even joked that there was nothing interesting about the man until now.

Charles Ramsey: temporary hero or not, he did the right thing when it counted.

Charles Ramsey: temporary hero or not, he did the right thing when it counted.

It could be argued that the same is true for Mr. Ramsey himself, someone we’d never have heard of had the kidnapping story not ultimately had a happy ending. Without the rescue, his folksy, jokey style wouldn’t have been so engaging. But with smiles and tears of relief flowing, this comic character definitely adds theatrical value to the overall experience.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Mr. Ramsey, besides his role as jester-hero, is the captivating reminder that every one of us has the capacity for courage and initiative, whether our lives have demonstrated it or not.

News is coming out about Mr. Ramsey’s past choices. Some of them have been neither courageous nor noble. He has a history of domestic abuse and other associated charges, along with a more recent history of working to overcome those problems. It’s easy to forget that television personalities, though famous for one act or incident, have just as many dimensions as we do.

We have no idea, yet, how Ramsey will handle the fifteen minutes of fame or the all-but-certain McDonald’s commercial. We have no idea whether this momentous experience, which freed those women from their captivity, will similarly free Mr. Ramsey from whatever may be holding his own life back. We have no idea whether he’ll launch into a new way of life, or lapse into the old story of any number of would-be heroes who fall and fade and are forgotten.

The lesson we should take here, though, isn’t dependent on any of that.

This episode is a reminder that each of us faces less dramatic but no less instructive choices every day. Moment by moment, we have the opportunity to do the right things in our lives and businesses. To break down doors that need to be broken, to help people who call to us for help, or to defer reward in favor of enjoying the fruits of our own labor.

Perhaps, as Ramsey said, we will choose to do it for faith. Or maybe we’ll do it for country. Maybe we’ll even feel a strange sense of questioning, as Ramsey did, when categories of race and age seem to vanish in a moment of urgent action. Whatever our motivation, we must remember the core message as it was once expressed by President Ronald Reagan, who said, “We can’t help everyone. But we can help someone.”

Some would say this just shows “you don’t have to be on a battlefield to be a hero,” but I think that misses the point. We’re not all on physical battlefields with bullets flying, but we are all fighting an internal battle between our better natures and the temptations of easy dodges.

We have the option to turn our heads, walk on by, or ignore the call. But we also have the option to take responsibility for doing the right thing. That is a courageous power not reserved for presidents or kings or generals.

It’s there for dishwashers, too.

And for us.