The students I meet as a professor are idealistic and want to be world changers. They dream of deeds that will transform the world. Some of them do go on to great things. But many do not, and their lives are sidetracked by addictions, poor financial decisions, and failed relationships.
Where do they go wrong? In dreaming of epic lives, a lot of my students are forgetting the value of small-scale heroism. Many of them could in fact live epically if they focused on small things, rather than large. For instance, few could ever impact an American presidential election. The system is just too vast for individuals to make a difference. But a lot of them could change their city council. A lot of them could influence the kids on their neighborhood block. A lot of them, through introspection, could overcome their personal addictions. And a lot of them could bless their children, their spouses, and their friends and neighbors.
I love following the world news. I am often glued to the Washington Post or CNN during presidential campaigns. But my time as a consumer of world news comes at the expense of my local work. A lot of the good that I could be doing in my immediate life gets neglected because of my attention to events that are far away. One year, during presidential campaign season, I gave up the news cycle for Lent. I became amazingly productive, empowered like never before to serve my family and students.
I agree that we should inform ourselves about the world. But in order to vote we don’t need to know the blow-by-blow accounts of some presidential candidate’s latest extra-marital affairs. The general knowledge that he is a lifelong womanizer is enough for me. We don’t need to know the details of the day-to-day bombs that go off in Middle East marketplaces. A general knowledge of Middle East affairs is enough to fulfill our civic duties.
Gandhi once said “to change the world, we must first change ourselves.” Students of mine who focus their energies on far-off events, becoming spectators to narratives on which they have no impact, are not cultivating the introspection that is necessary to change their own thoughts and behaviors. Maybe real heroism is overcoming your addiction to internet pornography. Maybe real heroism is serving the needs of the neighbors on your block. Maybe an epic life is putting up with the crying of a two-year old because you want to parent sacrificially and provide the world with a well-adjusted, happy adult. Starting a family and serving your children is every bit as heroic as going off to Hollywood to become a stage and screen star. My idealistic young students could be the heroes they envision if they were willing to focus on overcoming their addictions, improving their financial decisions, and nourishing their relationships. But that requires rejecting a life of flashy pop culture consumption for a life of faithful introspection and service.