* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, August 20, 2012

Judges 6-8: Heroes Rarely Change the World

We love stories about heroes.  Super heroes.  War heroes.  Mythical heroes.  Small town heroes.  They are more than merely average human beings.  They exemplify, even if only for a moment, the kind of people we would like to be.  They do the things we would like to think we would do.  If we were able.  If we could rise above the distractions of every day life.  If we had a little more power.  Or a lot more power.  At the very least, stories about heroes warm our hearts and give us hope. 

And yet, how much of an impact do heroes really have?  No matter how many wars are fought, conflict persists between countries and peoples.  No matter how many evil plots are foiled in our favorite comics, there are still more villains.  Heroes may inspire us for a time, but we slip back into life as usual pretty easily.  Certainly, the real people we consider to be heroic make a significant impact on a few people.  The firefighter who saves a local family is rightly titled a hero, and that family's existence is forever impacted by that act of heroism.  But life goes on.  There will be more fires.  The family will move on in their lives, and ultimately, the world will keep doing what it does.

In fact, world-changing events often have very little to do with individual actions.  The things that change reality on a global scale are often things like diseases, stock market crashes, catastrophes.  The moments in history when a single person's efforts are seen as world-changing are often quite the opposite of what we would consider heroic: the assassins or charismatic revolutionaries whose actions spark chain reactions.  Of course there are those people who discover or invent the next step in medical, scientific, or technological progress: the Flemings, Einsteins, and Berners-Lees of the world.  And there are those individuals who accomplish extraordinary feats: the Lindberghs, Amundsens, and Hillarys that change the way we see human capability.  Still, at the end of the day, most world-changing events are more accurately portrayed as group efforts rather than the personal accomplishments of one person.

The book of Judges demonstrates clearly that even an incredibly heroic figure is still likely to have a minimal impact on a culture or society.  Gideon, who doesn't at first trust his calling as a hero, accomplishes great things for the Israelites, and yet at the end of his life, they are right back to living the way they were before.  Gideon is chosen, for unknown reasons, to serve as God's tool.  He actually goes back and forth a bit with God's messenger to make sure the angel has the right guy.  Once he's convinced, Gideon destroys the altar his community had raised to a local non-Israelite deity, and he summons his tribe's warriors to join him in fighting against Israel's numerous oppressors. 

He still had his doubts, and he took a couple of days to verify that God was on his side.  Then, God took a turn testing Gideon by telling him to dismiss the majority of his soldiers.  At the ultimate conflict, the Israelites surprised their enemy because of their small numbers and created chaos with trumpet blasts and fires.  Cleverness is once again shown as an admirable trait.  Gideon had some trouble with other Israelite tribes.  To those that chastised him for taking all the glory for himself, he offered soothing diplomacy.  Those that ridiculed his efforts and refused to help received Gideon's vengeance once the enemy was dispatched. 

Although the Israelites wanted to place Gideon in a role of power, he instead set up a golden shrine for the Israelites to worship.  His words deferred power to God, but his actions led his tribe right back to a different sort of idolatry.  Maybe he knew that the leadership they offered would be more trouble than it was worth.  In any case, when Gideon died, the Israelites went back to their old ways.  He was one man in the midst of a culture that was set in its habits, and his efforts ultimately had little impact on that culture.

It seems like a disheartening tale on the one hand, but it is an incredibly insightful tale about the limits of personal control over other people.  Gideon served in a way that was meaningful to him, in the way in which he was divinely inspired and empowered.  When the offer of leadership was made, he declined.  That was a step beyond his willingness or capability.  A few of us may be Einsteins or Berners-Lees or Lindberghs -- we may be the ones who discover, invent, or accomplish something that changes the world for large numbers of people.  Most of us will have opportunities to be a hero to someone through much less earth-shattering acts.  The secret is to follow a deep passion rather than external obligation.

None of the great thinkers or doers whose names we all know spent their energy trying to be heroic any way they could until they found something that would have a big impact.  Rather, they focused their time and energy on things that were personally satisfying passions, and the results were profound.  Gideon didn't set out trying to get the Israelites to acknowledge him as a leader, and everything he did wasn't perfect.  Still, he made a difference in a small way and when it ceased to be inspiring or satisfying, he stopped.  The firefighter who saves the family chooses to run into the building (hopefully with specialized training to support that decision).  She or he probably expects a little acknowledgement at the end of the day, but it's also to be expected that life will go on eventually.  Running into the building is just a part of who a firefighter is.  It's honest.  It means something personal to the firefighter. 

Why spend time trying to be heroic or successful if the things you're doing to be heroic or successful don't really have any personal value to you?  It's true that if you spend your time focused on things that have personal value that you may not be heroic or successful in anyone else's eyes, but does that really matter if you are personally satisfied with the results of how you spend your time and energy?  You don't owe the world anything.  And the world doesn't owe you anything either. 

Like Gideon or a firefighter or any number of heroes in newspaper stories all over the world, you will have opportunities to do significant things that will most likely be forgotten by most people.  You may even have a chance to do something that will be remembered by a lot of folks.  Either way, if you are focused on the things that have deep personal meaning to you -- if you are authentic to your most noble self -- you will have a greater impact that you will ever have the privilege of seeing.  You cannot determine whether your actions will change people's lives or the course of society.  You don't get to decide whether your actions will be meaningful to anyone else.  What you can determine is whether your actions are meaningful to you.  The ripples those actions create are out of your control.

No comments:

Post a Comment