A great man died this week.
Chances are you’ve never heard his name and wouldn’t recognize his picture. But his death has affected me deeply. He was my teacher and mentor. And outside of my family, he probably exerted more influence in my life than any other.
He had a wonderful sense of humor. “Men who are bald on the front are thinkers,” he once quipped. “Men who are bald on the back are lovers. Men who are bald all over think they’re lovers.” And a favorite: “The higher the monkey goes, the more the rear-end shows.”
He had great insight into leadership. “The secret of concentration is elimination,” he said. He was right. And this, spoken more than twenty-five years ago, but just as relevant today: “The greatest crisis in the world today is a crisis in leadership. And the greatest crisis in leadership is a crisis of character.”
As a writer, he gave me the best advice I ever received: “Good thinking is the basis of good writing.”
He was my hero.
He never stormed a beach or jumped out of a plane behind enemy lines, but he was a hero. His battles weren’t against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces enslaving people in ignorance and moral ruin. His weapon wasn’t a gun but the Word of God. He was a humble and gracious teacher, and a hero to the 10,000 and more students who absorbed his wisdom.
I write about my unnamed professor because heroes have fallen on hard times. It’s not that they’re in short supply, but we seem to have boxed them up and misplaced them. The shelves of our society have been restocked with “personalities.” We no longer think in terms of heroes. Like honor, courage, and glory, heroes are reminisced about as if from a bygone era.
In our modern and sophisticated era we like to talk about celebrities—the pompous personalities Hollywood parades across our screens who are more well known for their well-knownness than for any real talent or contribution they’ve made to humanity. In days past, celebrities had real accomplishments; they had talent. But in the age of “reality” TV talent has lost much of its luster. The contribution to goodness, truth, and beautify by today’s celebrities could squeeze inside a thimble. Let’s face it, we live during a time when any good publicist, paid enough money, can turn anyone into a celebrity. Just ask the Kardashian girls—Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé.
What is disconcerting about all this is the fact that talentless and trivial celebrities are the new heroes. This isn’t to say that celebrities can’t be heroes, or heroes celebrities. It’s only to point out that well-knownness shouldn’t necessarily make one a hero. Our insistence that the two are equivalent, however, doesn’t dignify celebrity, it degrades heroics. And this neither serves our culture well nor provides anything greater for our children to emulate than to be merely famous.
Clive James summed up the maddening pursuit of fame nicely when he wrote, “A life without fame can be a good life, but fame without a life is no life at all.” Certainly, for ourselves and our children, we want a good life more than fame. Don’t we?
The answer to that question is sobering, if judged by what our culture values. We don’t want true heroes, we want celebrities. We’re more enthralled with the banalities of Beyoncé, the antics of Alec Baldwin, and the lasciviousness of Lady Gaga than with the heroism of the men and women in Afghanistan or those who man the police stations and firehouses in our cities. And there’s nothing sexy about the dedication and sacrifice of those who teach us and our children.
But those on the front lines, whether on the battlefield, as first responders, or in the classroom are heroes.
They’re heroes because they embody the characteristics we value most. Without them how would we know what courage, sacrifice, or honor look like? They also imbue us with a purpose. They provide an example to follow. And they embolden us to persevere. They challenge us to strive, to improve our character and adopt some of their own.
If our heroes, however, are only those with famous names—the untouchables who fly over the vast majority of us on their way to Hollywood from New York or to New York from Hollywood—what does this say about the American character? Have we become a nation incapable of greatness or heroism? We certainly have the potential for greatness, for heroism—our history proves that. But as my teacher, mentor, and hero observed, “Nothing is more common than unfulfilled potential.”
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.