I’ve been thinking a lot about heroism the past few weeks – how much of it is in our nature, and how much is a conscious choice to act in particular circumstances.
There are people who choose to risk physical danger daily to protect, save or stand up for someone or something greater than themselves. They deserve to be recognized as heroes for that kind of sacrifice. A few people find themselves in situations where they make the same sacrifice, whether they chose to be there or not. I’d call them heroes too.
Even though most of us won’t make that choice or find ourselves in that kind of situation, I think it’s in our nature to want to have a positive impact on others and I think most of us would agree that we have a responsibility beyond ourselves, our family and friends, but our daily lives seem to yield few opportunities to act on that. And that’s the problem with daily life, isn’t it, because a whole lot of self-absorbed days turn into a self-absorbed life before we know it.
David Foster Wallace’s reflections on heroism and everyday life are frequently on my mind. A few pages from The Pale King have stuck with me, where he describes mistakenly wandering into an Advanced Tax class at university and hears the substitute instructor define accountancy as a heroic profession. I think he’s being sarcastic, but if so, it is to make a point. I sure buy the part where the instructor says “Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”
So you know how when you’re on a certain mind path, everything you see or read or hear seems to connect? For some reason I recently started re-reading a book given to me by a friend 29 years ago (the reason actually is that I needed something to read on the treadmill and this particular book happened to be the one I picked out of the closest box. But was that really coincidence or did some force of the universe place that book at the top of the box?) Anyhow, the book is Love by Leo Buscaglia, and one particular paragraph leapt off the page at me:
“There are few individuals who have the power to stop prejudice, universal poverty or war, but this is not the question. The only question we can justly ask of ourselves is ‘What can I do?’ The answer is usually simple and answerable, especially if we truly care and are willing to assume the responsibility.”
But the answer didn’t seem simple or answerable to me. My question was still how to get past those fearsome enemies of boredom, angst, monotony and inconsequence; to justify a life of privilege during which, so far, sacrifice really hasn’t been asked of me; to assume responsibility for having a net positive impact rather than an insignificant or even detrimental one?
Further on, Dr. Buscaglia quoted a psychotherapist named Joseph Zinker, who, I’ve since discovered, has a fascinating story of his own (I’m trying to find a copy of a collection of his poems and drawings called Sketches: An Anthology of Essays, but so far have only been able to find it as an e-book, and I’m not there yet). Here’s his advice: take my one decision to change seriously … fight my petty resistances against change and fear … learn more about my mind … try out behaviour that fills my real need … carry out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them (oh, that one is tough) … listen to my words and look in the eyes of those who speak to me.
I think I understand this. Counter boredom with change. Use angst to learn about the source of my fear. Fight monotony at all cost. I will not become a hero, but I can resolve not to be inconsequential either.