Heroic characters can change the world. They certainly have in the past. And they likely will in the future. We’ve always needed them. And we will likely need them for a long time to come. This is sad in a way. In a world full of impaired characters we need heroes very badly. (See: the introductory section of Character Disturbance.) Unfortunately, few of them come along. Still, history shows that heroic characters can appear on the scene at just the right time. And when that happens big changes often ensue.
The Making of a Hero
Heroic characters need not be larger than life personalities. Some of the meekest among us have ushered in some of history’s biggest movements. But occasionally someone with powerful charisma comes along. They grab our attention. And they reach our hearts. Their message and their example can even spark a revolution.
So what really makes a hero? All heroic characters share one trait: they’re willing to put something vital to humanity as a whole ahead of themselves. They might even be willing to put it ahead of their own life.
A Modern Day Hero
We began this week commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In my book, he’s one of those archetypal heroic characters. I say that not because he was a perfect man. He wasn’t. Like all of us, he had his flaws. And some of them were substantial. But he had his principles, too. And he was willing to do more than just speak up for those principles. He was even willing to do more than stand up for them. He was willing to sacrifice himself for them.
Few realize how truly learned and well grounded in theology Dr. King was. And fewer still realize how his depth of knowledge fueled his zeal. His wisdom begat a deep sense of obligation to put the principles he’d come to embrace into practice despite whatever shortcomings he might have.
Dr. King eventually paid a steep price, for his efforts – the ultimate price. And he always knew it was a price he might have to pay. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he spoke frankly of the risk he knew he faced. It was a risk he faced every day. But he sensed it growing nearer. Some warned him not to speak out on behalf of the workers he’d come to Memphis to support. But he simply couldn’t let the just cause down. As with all heroic characters, Dr. King’s life was not his own. He had long ago surrendered it to something bigger. That’s exactly what makes the heroes among us the venerable characters they are. And that’s what makes them so very different from narcissistic characters. (See: Narcissists Can’t Recognize a Higher Power.)
We often afford persons of the cloth the title “reverend.” Some merit the title more than others. In my book, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is definitely one of them. I say that not just because of all he spoke up for or all he did. And I say that not just because of the price he eventually paid. It’s how he did it all that I revere the most. He did it nonviolently, with the most benign kind of necessary confrontation. (See also: Learning to Confront Benignly and Effectively). Taking cues from both Jesus of Nazareth and Ghandi of India, he calmly but firmly held up a mirror to society’s racial sins. And in peacefully but resolutely holding that mirror, he exposed the bigotry among us.
Something and Someone to Remember
Dr. King made us see what we would not see. He caused us to face what we would have rather not faced. And he forced us to examine our hearts and consciences. Of course, some hearts were so hardened they simply couldn’t be moved. But many hearts were indeed moved. And that prompted a change of both heart and mind. (See also: A Guide to Purposeful Living).
This week we remember someone who dared – at all costs – to call us out. And we do well to remember that he did so nonviolently and much love yet still with conviction. In so doing, he changed the world. And he did so like so many of the heroic characters before him: one heart at a time. This man of peace and integrity merits our reverence. Narcissists demand praise in return for affording us any value at all. True heroes earn our admiration by embracing and subordinating themselves to the deepest needs of all humankind. I was just coming into adulthood when Dr. King was alive. But his words, his efforts for social justice, and especially, his character made a lasting impression. And at this writing, I remember.