Monday, January 20, 2014

Heroes and Martyrs


noun \ˈhir-(ˌ)ō\
: a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities
: a person who is greatly admired
: the chief male character in a story, play, movie, etc.


noun \ˈmär-tər\
: a person who is killed or who suffers greatly for a religion, cause, etc.

I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire over the weekend. Great movie, in some ways even better than the book, and the popularity of both the books and the movies has fueled an entire mini-industry of dystopian fiction in which teenaged heroes and heroines fight for survival.

That's not a new thing, though. The heroes of ancient mythology were almost all teenagers (and mostly male, but not always). Teenagers want the opportunity to dare greatly and achieve great things, and all of us who used to be teenagers remember that longing, if we haven't beaten it out of ourselves. 

We all want the opportunity to be great, to do something massively meaningful – don't we? We all want to find some version of the hero's journey, to be the central characters in our own monomyth. 

It's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a good day to think about the realities of the hero's journey. The danger of turning Dr. King into a historical icon is that it lets us forget what everyday heroism looks like. We focus on the great events — the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, that last rally at Mason Temple in Memphis. Those were extraordinary and spectacular events that allowed an extraordinary man to rise to the occasion, but if we take our impression of King's heroism from those public events alone, we are missing the point in a major way.

The real heroism happens offstage. Dr. King married Coretta Scott in 1953, and they had their first child in 1955, only weeks before the bus boycott began. Three more children followed, in 1957, 1961, and 1963, a stretch of time in which Dr. King was arrested, harassed, subjected to government surveillance, openly jeered and constantly under threat of physical attack. He didn't go from rally to rally or speech to speech. He was working every day on the process of change, which terrified and infuriated so many people, and in the midst of all that he was also trying to have something that resembled a normal family life.

And that's where the heroism is, that's what separates someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. — or indeed, like Coretta Scott King — from me. I hope and believe that given the opportunity to make a one-time sacrifice for something or someone I cared about, I'd do that. (I actually hope and believe that I already have.) But living with that kind of persecution and fear on a daily basis is a sacrifice I doubt I could make. Frankly, I hope I'm never asked for it — but as I type that I suspect that I am, that we all are, and we choose to ignore those demands every day.

Good people live among us. Heroes live among us. It's good to have this day to remind us of what that means, and of what we might yet aspire to. 


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