Politics & Policy

Can We Be Heroes and Saints?

Trump speaks at a rally in Roanoke, Va., September 24, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
It’s worth aspiring to both.

‘Now that we’ll have a President who has said, ‘I don’t have heroes,’ I suppose we must all somehow step up & become heroes for one another,” writer Wendy Shalit tweeted the day after the election. The mother of three describes herself as an “evangelist for romantic hope and the possibility of innocence.”

In conversation, she reminded me of a man named Gershon Burd, a father of five who died in an accident in 2013 and who had led a “secret life.” People knew he was a good guy, but they had no idea really — even his family. For himself he would buy used shoes and suits. For others, he would do anything, it turned out. He was gratuitously generous.

In a 2014 reissue of her 1999 book, A Return to Modesty, Shalit wrote:

A stationary store owner in the Old City of Jerusalem gave out free helium balloons to all children on their birthdays . . . only because Gerson quietly slipped into the store every month and paid for the balloons. He also paid for plane tickets home, so that other people could visit their sick parents.

Shalit asked: “Is there anything more extraordinary than a life lived with such sublime modesty?”

Shalit also tweeted out, in the wake of the election, a picture of her family-library copy of The Book of Virtues, a collection that Bill Bennett, the former secretary of education, published in 1993. She commented: “Remember when the Left used to attack the Right 4being moral prigs? 25yrs later into the ‘let’s-all-be-jerks’ era & I am missing those days.”

When I picked up A Return to Modesty again, I read this:

The wheel of maturity is grasped when a person humbles himself to identify with others and stretches himself to become a more giving person. . . . Of course, these daily acts of person growth can’t be measured by one’s popularity on social networking sites — in truth, they may even be inversely related — but they are what ultimately matters, and the stuff out of which a sense of self is made.

That’s a message that some of the people protesting Donald Trump’s election need to hear. I didn’t vote for the man, and I have feelings similar to Shalit’s, as far as what it says about us that we will have a first lady who described her husband’s repulsive language about women (which may or may not have reflected the reality of his approach to sexual relations) as boys’ dirty locker-room talk.

The Trumps are headed to the White House now, and it’s not as if the Clintons did not know all about sex and abuse of power in the headlines. And the poor choices this election year were not the fault of the candidates but a reflection on ourselves and our politics. I broke open my copy of The Book of Virtues and noticed that the first virtue is self-discipline. It includes some verse from an unknown author on learning how to conduct conversations:

If you your lips would keep from slips

Five things observe with care:

Of whom you speak, to whom you speak,

And how and when and where.

If you your ears would save from jeers,

These things keep meekly hid:

Myself and I, and mine and my,

And how I do and did.

Countercultural much?

He points as well to the advice in the Socratic dialogue Gorgias, by Plato: “The ordered soul is the only truly happy one, the only one capable of living the Good Life.” In the dialogue, Socrates says:

He who desires to be happy must pursue and practice temperance and run away from intemperance as fast as his legs will carry him. . . . This appears to me to be the aim which a man ought to have, and toward which he ought to direct all the energies both of himself and of the state, acting so that he may have temperance and justice present with him and be happy, not suffering his lusts to be unrestrained, and in the never-ending desire to satisfy them leading a robber’s life. Such a one is the friend neither of God nor man, for he is incapable of communion, and he who is incapable of communion is also incapable of friendship. . . . Philosophers tell us, Callicles, that communion and friendship and orderliness and temperance and justice bind together heaven and earth and gods and men, and that this universe is therefore called cosmos or order, not disorder or misrule.

Throughout the campaign, people asked me why Trump’s recklessness in speech and action matter, publicly and privately. That’s why. But again, he’s about to be president, and the bigger issue is ourselves. What do we value, what do we want to value, who are we, and who do we want to be? In the Christian tradition, there’s a call to be a saint, and it is universal. We don’t need a saint as president, but a president who himself has heroes, or one who may want to be a hero in his own right — these are worth aspiring to someday. That’ll take everyone pitching in to live and nurture virtues such as modesty and humility, like Gershon Burd and so many others whose names will never be well known. They are lives to celebrate and emulate.  

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