For Sale: Hero Cape, Never Worn
As a society, we are fascinated by heroes. They form the basis for most of our stories: from Odysseus to Wonder Woman, we want to read and talk and think about men and women who are the strongest, smartest, and most skilled at what they do.
In our stories, these heroes are the indispensable forces that solve problems in the world. They almost always have flaws and sometimes may fail, but everything depends on them. This vision of heroism is not limited to our entertainment. In every aspect of our lives, we are bombarded by a world that tells us that heroes are necessary. Brilliant researchers are needed to fight existential threats such as disease or climate change; daring first responders (or “normal” citizens turned heroes) must risk their lives when disaster strikes; and charismatic leaders are the only ones who can create societal change. In all arenas, we are told that great deeds are necessary to make the world a better place, and that such deeds can only be accomplished by heroes.
It is unquestionable that good things are accomplished by heroes, and that our lives are better off because of them. However, our cultural obsession with heroism can mislead in two ways. First, we may come to believe that the only works that matter are the great ones. The day-to-day minutia of most jobs or of our work within our homes might be good in some small, insignificant way, but it isn’t important or indispensable. We want to get past the boring parts, and build ourselves up to where we can do work that “really matters.” Secondly, we may become obsessed by the centrality of heroes. In both real and fictional tales of heroism, everything depends on the few. We may hope to become the heroes of our own stories, and so become consumed by pride and self-centeredness.
As Chrisitans, we are also part of a culture of heroism, though our heroes often do not look like the world’s. Most of our examples of faith—from Moses to the Apostles to modern-day saints—are heroes who served God through great and dramatic deeds. It could be easy to think that, unless we are martyrs, missionaries, or preachers, our service to God is of minimal importance. However, many of us will never be called to obvious acts of heroism. Does this mean the day-to-day work of living our lives is unimportant?
As is the case for every question, we must look to Christ for the answer. At first, it may appear that we are presented with a paradox. Christ is the greatest hero: no act of heroism can ever be accomplished that is greater than Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Christ is the only sinless man, but he willingly took upon himself the full burden of every sin and died to save every person. Even the greatest act of popular heroism, either from reality or from fiction, is infinitesimal compared to this. All of us, created in the image and likeness of God, are called to model our lives after Christ’s. But many of us will never be called to an act of heroism that obviously follows Christ’s model of dying that others may live.
To understand the paradox, we must look to what precedes the Passion. After the Last Supper, Christ goes into the garden to pray. He prays that the cup placed before Him would pass, pleading with such fervor and desire that blood pours from His brow. But, even in the depths of His agony, Christ prays to His Father that “not my will, but yours be done.” In this moment, He makes the choice that opposes the choice made by our first parents to turn away from God; He makes the choice that crushes the head of the serpent under His feet. He chooses to accept the Father’s will for His life. He accepts that He will be tortured, and that He will die burdened with the full horror of every sin. This, in a mysterious way, is Christ’s most heroic act. Whereas other people throughout history have suffered and died for the sake of others, only Christ could willingly accept the burden of every sin. Therefore the form of our heroism must be to choose to turn our will over to the Father, and so accept whatever joy or suffering is before us.
This disposition is the antidote to our obsession with heroism. The importance of any act derives from its concordance with the Father’s will. Even the most mundane and seemingly dispensable work may be of immense worth, and the most seemingly heroic deeds may turn out to mean very little. In fact, if we only stop to look, we see that the world would quickly fall apart without much of the work that seems small, and would likely get along just fine without many of our heroes. This desire to turn our will over to God also humbles our pride. We see that, no matter how great or small the part we are called to play may seem, God is the center and foundation of the story of Creation. Like our work, the measure of our lives is not what we build for ourselves, but how well we conform to God’s will. If we are called to save the lives of thousands or be lauded by millions or to die for our faith, thanks be to God. If we are called to humbly serve our neighbors, with our good deeds unseen by any mortal eyes, thanks be to God. Of course, it is impossible to choose to do the Father’s will if we don’t know what He wills for us to do. Through the work of prayer we begin to learn to listen to God’s call. In the company of others, both within our communities and in reading the works of holy men and women from all ages, we learn to discern and interpret God’s will. Learning to know and do the will of God is not simple—it is a lifetime of hard work. But it is good work, the gentle yoke and light burden that frees us from our need to build ourselves into heros.