Edited: Since published Hurricane Florence has made landfall in the United States. Here’s to everyone lending a helping hand and being a hero. Stay safe, everyone!
Well, here we are. The dog days of summer, school back in session, just under two months until we see Claire and Jamie and Brianna and Roger navigate their next chapters of love and adventure. And, since this is Outlander, we are guaranteed at least a few spectacular rescues along the way.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about rescues lately, triggered by the heartbreaking suspense of the soccer team trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system of Northern Thailand earlier this summer. Having been rescued myself by the Thai people fourteen years ago, this story hit fairly close to home.
My husband and I were on our honeymoon in Krabi province, snorkeling off the coast, when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit and destroyed much of our resort. We were pulled from the water by a Thai fisherman and evacuated to safety. Although we have returned to Thailand in the years since, we have never again seen the man that we credit with saving our lives. We try to lead good lives and pay it forward when we can; sometimes being human gets in the way of being the best version of ourselves that we can be.
If we are lucky we live to tell the tale of our rescue and survival. If we are even luckier we get a chance to rescue another. The luckiest among us find ways to save ourselves. And this brings us back to Outlander— a world where rescues come in all sizes, from nearly all characters, and in varied forms with different nuances. What makes the rescues of Outlander so believable, despite their sometimes extreme nature or fantastical basis, is that nearly every Outlander character treats saving another as just a matter-of-fact way of life— we rescue others because is is simply what must be done. We do not deliberate over what might be in it for us, if our own life may be in jeopardy, or what credit we will get for doing the right thing. Rather, rescues in Outlander happen because our characters are good people, and that’s just what good people do.
The straightforward decision to help someone in need, I’d argue, is an integral part of Outlander’s appeal. People love to love a hero; there are reasons that tales of heroism are fairly timeless. As Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals argue in this excellent 2016 article, we are drawn to hero stories because they tie us to our past, help us make sense of complex human emotions and actions, and allow us to live beyond ourselves.
Outlander, both in novel and television form, ticks all those boxes. Continually- and in nearly every episode- we see our characters act altruistically in overt and subtle ways. Let’s explore how and why they are heroes, and how we can translate those stories into the reality of our own lives.
A Matter of Life and Death
Most obviously (and perhaps most commonly) rescues in Outlander are a matter of life and death: Jamie barging in during the witch trial in Cranesmuir, blades drawn; Claire administering penicillin or performing some other medical feat; Lord Melton sending Jamie home rather than executing him…there is a rescue in nearly every episode and there far too many to list here.
I’m not going to attempt to delve into the psychology of these fictional characters…that is perhaps a job only for Diana Gabaldon. But there is a quite a bit of research about why some people become heroes (or behave altruistically) and others do not. At the core of a hero’s psyche, many argue, is what is referred to as prosocial behavior or prosocial orientation— behaviors that benefit society as a whole. Some people are more prosocial than others, and research suggests that having a deep sense of empathy (usually instilled in childhood) makes certain people more likely to behave in a prosocial way. People who have generally positive views of humanity and feel a personal responsibility toward others’ welfare also have a more prosocial orientation.
That’s Jamie, is it not? Virtually every action or decision he makes is in regard for the welfare of those for whom he feels responsible- his Lallybroch tenants, his family, Claire and Brianna (and William), his fellow prisoners at Ardsmuir, etc…Jamie repeatedly sacrifices almost everything he has to better the lives of those he loves.
This prosocial tendency also extends to Claire. She willingly serves on the front lines of WWII and the Jacobite uprising, she risks her life (many, many times) to find or help Jamie, and she eagerly volunteers at L’Hôpital des Anges. She’s brave and willing to serve others no matter the danger to herself: “I took an oath,” “I’m the ship’s surgeon.” Heroes rush in when others run out, and perhaps this is one of the many reasons she and Jamie are so well-suited for each other— they both feel responsible for the overall welfare of their fellow human beings, no matter the danger to themselves.
A Matter of Life and Living
Sometimes saving someone isn’t a matter of life and death, but rather a matter of life and living. More subtly in Outlander (but just as importantly) characters save each other from grief, loneliness, or despair. I’d argue that these types of rescues are sometimes the tougher call to make, especially if you place them in the context of real life: Should I say something? Is this any of my business? Surely this person has others who are already helping…how much can I really contribute? The decision to step in when you see someone struggling carries with it a myriad of potential social consequences, and that makes those decisions all the more brave.
Think of Claire rescuing Jamie from the depths of self-loathing after Wentworth prison, Roger giving Brianna permission to love both her fathers equally, and Brianna letting Claire go back to Jamie to pursue her own happiness. Think, too, of Frank taking Claire back, saving her from potential social stigma and once again offer her a chance for love and marriage. Our twentieth century characters don’t get as many chances to physically rescue someone in peril, but salvation comes in the form of love. Our characters risk rejection and often sacrifice their own feelings to place others’ needs above their own.
A Matter of Life and Love
But what if our own needs warrant prioritizing? Sometimes the most difficult rescues come when we are forced to rescue ourselves—when we are facing some form of darkness and we make a decision to save our own life, either literally or figuratively. There is a time in our life that will come to many of us— a time when we decide that we are worthy of love. When we pull ourselves from a danger and we are the only ones who can do it. We decide that we are worth it, and dear reader: YOU ARE ALWAYS WORTH IT.
Recall all the ways our characters turn to their own internal strength to see them through a personal darkness: Frank in Season 1 chooses to move on from heartbreak, not knowing if or when Claire will ever return; Jamie makes a decision to continue living after Wentworth prison, ultimately deciding that his life and his life with Claire is worth the effort; Claire does not succumb to loneliness after returning to the twentieth century. Rather, she makes a decision to invest in her future and go to medical school. Brianna mourns Claire’s departure in Season 3, but moves forward with her future. Roger struggles with grief and loss but heeds Claire’s advice: “You have to go on living without them…because that’s what they would want.”
We remembered the anniversary of 9/11 this week, and I’m sure I’m not alone in recalling the lasting images of the first responders rushing to Ground Zero to do what they do best: be a hero. Our society works because of brave men and women who put the lives of others ahead of their own. This is the first year I’ve tried to explain September 11 to my children, and I used the words of Mr. Rogers: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Here’s to the heroes of our world—the first responders, the doctors, the teachers, our military men and women, and the thousands of unsung people who step in every day to help humanity. Let us all attempt to do what’s right, whether for ourselves or someone else. And let us always look for and celebrate the helpers.