Ordinary Heroism: A Call to the Spiritual Life

Ordinary Heroism: A Call to the Spiritual Life September 16, 2014

I was driving down the highway. While the radio was on to my favorite local NPR station, to be honest I wasn’t really listening. Then I caught a fragment of a sentence, from a Boston doctor who was observing there were more docs on one floor of his hospital, I didn’t catch where, than in the entire country of Liberia. By the time I focused in on the story it was pretty much over. The only other part I caught was that he was going to Liberia to help with the Ebola crisis, and preparing, he and his wife had just updated his will.

Every once in a while I find myself thinking about heroes. Mostly being annoyed at how the word is stretched to near meaninglessness by people obsessively referring to victims as heroes. As if there is some taint in being a victim, and that the fix is to substitute the word hero. When the anniversary of 9/11 passed, I caught a bit of that misuse. Again. There were many, way too many victims on 9/11. And there were some heroes. They need not be conflated, except when they are genuinely both. Anyway, this conflation has become a small soapbox I occasionally climb up on.

Of course language is mutable. Language is dynamic and changes over time. My favorite example is how in the King James Bible the word “prevent” means to “precede” not “stop” as in contemporary English. On the other hand, I do not think every shift or change in the meaning of words is a tragedy as some of my friends appear to believe.

That said, I do feel one should be cautious re-purposing the use of words. If for no other reason than giving a word a new meaning or emphasis can easily confuse people rather than clarify some matter, the presumed desired consequence of that shift. Against this background I find myself thinking about heroes and the heroic life, and feel there’s something for us in considering using “hero” in a way that it hasn’t been much of late.

According to the online version of Merriam-Webster, a hero is, in its first definition, “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.” It throws in as secondary definitions “someone who is greatly admired” and the “chief male character” in a play or story. The historic part references the older use of divine or semi divine figures in Greek and Roman mythology.

Running through all the usages over time is a focus on personal traits, those fine or noble qualities. And it is that which captures my imagination. Particularly, as I consider how the word “athlete” was used by early Christian ascetics to describe practitioners of their spiritual discipline. I’ve always liked that usage, somehow slightly from left field.

And now I find myself think of our contemporary spiritual disciplines of presence, both to our environment and within our beings. What I have come to call “sit down, shut up, and pay attention.” I believe anyone who tries this “turning the light inward” as one sage put it, for any sustained time knows that keeping it up can be hard.

And here’s where heroic comes in. An authentic spiritual life is not all beer and skittles. It takes discipline and perseverance. It is definitely counter-cultural, as it demands a constant presence in a culture that is pretty much all about distraction.

A genuine spiritual life is heroic in the sense of those qualities of nobility and perseverance that move us out of the ordinary. And yet, at the very same time, it is something accessible to all of us. Sort of an ordinary heroism.

Finding the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Our call as people on the way of heart and authenticity.

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