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
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