“When something rotten like this happens you have no choice. You start to be really alive, or you start to die. That’s all” (James Agee).
Has there ever been a person in all of history who hasn’t suffered? A thing always alternates with its opposite. On the one hand we fall in love. On the other hand at some time our hearts are broken. Maybe more than once. There’s a time to be born and a time to die, a time to be healthy and a time to be sick. A time to succeed, a time to fail. A time to win and a time to lose. Joy comes into your life, and then sorrow arrives, at times with what seems an unbearable weight.
Then we must remake ourselves as heroes. Most of us have neglected the necessity of heroism in our daily lives. We think of heroism as an attribute solely of soldiers, adventurers, mountaineers, first responders, and the like–people who perform great dramatic deeds. Heroes take dark and dangerous journeys. They transform themselves into something that matters and makes a difference by overcoming trials and ordeals.
We have our own journeys and trials, and our own deeds to perform, which, though small, still have a tinge of greatness about them. We can be heroes every day, even with regard to small things, and being heroic in small everyday things, we can prepare ourselves for being heroic when misfortunes and disappointments strike. We forget almost everyone else, but the quiet heroes we’ve known in our lives are the people we will never forget.
Recently I attended a wheelchair basketball game. The players in wheelchairs passed the ball, took shots, got back on defense, scored, and worked hard. And they laughed and the spectators cheered for them. When they collided and their chair was knocked over they righted it and settled back into the game. They were disabled and would never walk again. But they loved playing basketball and refused to stop playing just because of their disability. They were heroes. They never gave in. Some limitations we will never be able to change. But we can still refuse to be stopped by them, can still overcome them. The path to our major life purposes and fulfillment almost never lies in a straight line.
Many experts and music lovers consider Beethoven the greatest composer. He became aware that he was losing what he called his “noblest faculty,” his hearing, at the age of twenty-eight. Eventually he was completely deaf. He wrote, “I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people: I am deaf.” His battle with himself in facing up to the loss of that sense that should have been more acute in a composer than in others, and conquering it by continuing to live and work in spite of it is to be heard in the power and grandeur of the music he wrote, but could not hear.
At times living in a world without sound he was driven to despair and thoughts of suicide. But his commitment to his music kept him alive: “I would have ended my life. It was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was in me.” That was his greatest triumph. When with all his strength and courage he had been reduced to despair and his deafness had cut him off from other people and driven him to terrible loneliness, he reached a turning point. He accepted deafness as a necessary condition of his life, and continued working in a frenzy in spite of it. He didn’t surrender to his suffering, but found in it the power to endure. “I am resolved, “he wrote, “to rise superior to every obstacle…I will take fate by the throat; it shall not wholly overcome me. Oh, it is so beautiful to live.” And the music this hero of the arts produced while totally deaf and suffering was magnificent.
Often the difference between a person who overcomes great obstacles and one who doesn’t isn’t that one is more intelligent than the other, or more gifted, or physically stronger–those things don’t matter very much to the everyday hero. But the one who has a powerful inner strength that is like a burning flame that nothing will ever be able to extinguish. Even the meek can become heroes. There are situations every day that the timid and downtrodden rise up to meet.
You pass heroes every day on the street without realizing it. You glance at them, but don’t really see them. Who knows what they’re going through right then as you look at them or how brave they’re being? You’re in a meeting and someone stands up and firmly says what everyone present knows is true but lacks the gumption to say. There is a hero. Whenever you face up to what you would rather hide from or ignore, you’re a quiet, unheralded hero. Homemakers are heroes at times, and at times workers are heroes, and a little child who is afraid of going to school but goes anyway is a hero. To face the truth about ourselves, to own up to our imperfections, takes a quiet and unobtrusive heroism. To lead our lives in an ethical way we must be heroes.
There come certain critical moments in your life when you’re at a crossroad: to be courageous or to be cowardly. The moment of courage is the moment you plunge straight ahead with dignity and strength in spite of fears, ordeals, and adversities. At that point you transform your ordeal into a new power. Courage is what we do about our fears.
There’s no more important word in your language and mine than courage. You need courage even to love. The English word “courage” is from the Latin cor and the French word coeur“ heart.” Courage is a thing of the heart. It means never surrendering, never giving in, never giving up whether you’re in a hospital bed, or facing a devastating problem, or are discouraged. Whenever misfortune knocks you down, you get up. Your mind tells you that after failing three or four times you’d better give up. But your heart tells you that you must get up one more time. You know you will because your heart tells you that you will. You are knocked down seven times, so of course you get up eight. It’s easy to keep going when nothing stands in your way. But when nothing stands in your way the prize at the end is usually nothing much to speak of.
We have to achieve our destiny whatever our circumstances. We all know at least one person who despite failed health or despite other misfortunes left his/her mark more decisively than others suffering under virtually no hardships and in perfect health. The chief characteristic of Beethoven’s attitude toward life, and of courageous people today, is the learning that some suffering can’t be avoided. And in the realization of the heroism of continuing bravely on and reaching their purposes in spite of every obstacle.
We should let go of fear and self-pity and maintain the confidence that most things will turn out well after all. No matter what, we have to do the best we can, never losing faith in ourselves and the belief that life is more on our side than against us. In this life as it really is and not as we wish it were, something must always be left to chance.
But we have to go on go on living as well as we can, have to function in any case. If we can’t plow our way through hardships, limitations, and setbacks, we can find ways to go around them and reach our purposes by other routes. We should save ourselves the unnecessary pain that comes from wishing unchangeable things to be any different than they are. There are at least a dozen things you regret and bemoan you did in your life, and many things that have happened to you that you wish hadn’t. But you can’t change them now and you have to go on living fruitfully with zest nevertheless.
When you’re brave you grow in stature. You’re a remarkable human being. You’re someone to take note of. Someone to admire. All people who stand up to misfortune unflinchingly are heroes. The misfortune has come uninvited and is unwanted. We would rather not confront it. But there it is, large as life or larger than life, and if we’re everyday heroes we face up to it. Everyday heroism requires an indestructible faith that if you stay psychologically and spiritually strong and have determination and persistence that can’t be exhausted, you will come out whole on the other side of this misfortune, stronger than you were before misfortune struck.
© 2016 David J. Rogers
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