On Heroism: A Letter to my Children
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. How will I explain to them what to do with the deep-seated, grasping longings they have in them and don’t understand? How will they know they aren’t alone with their wants, that all of humanity pulses with the same passions? – passions that can raise the sinking ship from the waves, or drown it utterly? How will they know that I too know the press of their heartache? I will write a letter… ]
My Dear Children,
You want to save the world. God bless you.
How it does need saving! How like it is to an overbold ocean liner, broken on the bergs of the deep and going down. How you want to dive under it and uphold it! How you wish your hands were great like those of God, that you could seize the smokestacks of the terrorized Titanic and take her out. How you want to dispense a thousand lifeboats into the cold darkness. How you want to hang on the heavy bell-ropes of the planet and set up a clamor for help that combs the stars.
This ambition to be a hero is one of the grandest things about the kingdom of youth. Never let anyone belittle it in your hearing, as long as you live. You are wise to let it run in your veins and impassion you. You are wise to look beyond your little self and into the great world, and hurt for it. You are wise to nurture your longing to heal the ravaged globe. Young people, never stop.
There is something you need to know, though. You should know it now, while you are still young, for though it will surely dawn on you when you are old and full of days, it may be too late, then, for much good that might have been. Oh, it may be too late.
You need to know that you are not the caped savior but a passenger on the ship that is going down. The world’s only hero has already been here, and you can add nothing to what He has done. The scared crowds lining the decks are not in need of you, but of something else entirely. And you can only offer it to them if you are sure you have got it.
Know your poor self as deeply as you can bear to. Know your own frailty and your own frame. Know how to laugh at the joke that is you. It is a very good joke.
Come more time, and a little age on your shoulders, you will want to die for something. Maybe you already do. God bless you.
I know the feeling. How small and ultimately insignificant is your little life in the scheme of things. How you ache for the picture to be bigger, for the story to be wider, for something to put it all together, and make it all make sense. How you want to go down fighting for a greater cause. How you want your tiny, rather wretched self to be swallowed up in something ineffable and all-consuming. How you want your one, precious life to be spent on the very best thing.
For this cause men leave all that is dear and familiar and hard-won, and fling themselves recklessly into battles that can’t be won. For this cause a boy will put all his hopes into the barrel of a gun and fire it into the nothingness and fall into the dirt with his life ebbing out. For this cause little bands of brothers will break themselves against the impossible fortresses of tyrants. For this cause young women in new bloom and old women with happy memories and strong, able men and small children have endured slow deaths and dismemberment and decades behind iron bars and gone out singing, singing.
All down the ages the world has been going to war. Because a man needs a thing higher than himself to spend himself on.
“This is the one essential condition,” says Dostoevsky, “of human existence: that man should always be able to bow down to something infinitely greater. If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair.”
This ambition to be given up entirely to something entirely beyond you is one of the dearest things about you. Never let anyone poison your mind with myths about your own importance, murmurings about your individual rights and your individual grievances. You are wise to know your own poverty and insufficiency. Never stop knowing it.
There are some other things you need to know, though. You need to know them before you spend yourself on what is not worthy of you. For only one thing is.
The first thing you need to know is the way that evil men can take your best and noblest ideals and exploit them to the detriment of everything you honor and admire. Are men filled with a hunger to be sacrificed grandly? The kings of the earth are eager with ideas for grand sacrifice. They are eager to utilize your goodwill and your humility and your willingness to offer unquestioning obedience, and a man who will be guided by them may soon find himself blowing away the brains of toddlers in a pool of blood in a rice paddy, caught in a war that no one wants to win.
You do not owe your unquestioning obedience to that. Be sure you never offer that kind of allegiance to any of the rulers of the earth. A man may be weak and small, but his life, once he has given it up, is of great value, and may bring great ruin.
Nevertheless, you must not become less humble or less loyal because of this. You must not become embittered. The hunger in you is good. You have but to satisfy it with the thing that is right. You must offer your humility and your loyalty to a worthy commander. There is only one.
There is a second thing you need to know. It is the most important thing of all.
Ultimate heroism does not consist in dying for a thing, but in living for it.
Anyone can die. There is hype and adrenaline and suddenness and the strong, present sense of significance. The significance of death is rarely lost on anyone who comes to meet it face to face.
But to live something out, day in, day out, every tedious, monotonous, fearful, dull minute? Every morning to wake to the same alarm clock and fill your mouth with toothpaste and wear clothes you’ve worn a hundred other days and do the same tiresome work, and brush with the same tiresome people and greet all of this wearisome business with the same quiet joy, and seek in it the end that is higher than you?
Oh, that takes a hero. Oh, that takes a truly mighty man, a truly strong woman. Oh, that takes a power that is higher than you.
Yet that is the heroism that is before you, the bleak road through the thick darkness that severs everything from everything else and veils your eyes to what is occurring on every side. Will you go out without knowing? Because this is the satisfaction for the hunger in your heart and the only preparation to make you fit for the kind of dying that you want to one day do.