Election days have a way of turning grand pronouncements into self-serving tropes. The more I hear phrases such as “we are at a tipping point” or “this is the most important election ever in history” or “we must be on the right side of history” or “history is watching us,” the more I want to shield the dead horse of history from any further vainglorious beatings.
It only seems appropriate to escape this babble of our current politics between the book covers. If we must wrestle with the past, why not humbly learn from history instead of pretending to dictate its direction?
One book in this vein I often revisit is Larry Reed’s Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction.
According to Reed, a hero is a person of character who possesses “uncompromising honesty, boundless courage, unflinching responsibility, uncommon vision, steadfast self-discipline, and compassion that springs from one’s own heart rather than from another person’s wallet.”
The author shares many brief and digestible biographies — from Cicero to St. Augustine to William Gladstone to Harriet Tubman to Anne Frank to Joe Louis — with each chapter serving as an example of what it means to be a hero, no matter the context.
My biggest takeaway from Real Heroes is the idea that one can still be a hero despite the uncertain course of human events. History’s ebb and flow need not dictate one’s character nor should the whims of the political moment.
As Reed writes of St. Augustine, “His life was proof that even as the world you know crumbles into dust, you can still make a difference for the betterment of humanity’s future.”
This proof also lives in the first two Romans portrayed in the book, Marcus Tullius Cicero and Cato the Younger. Both of these men, practically speaking, failed in their lifelong efforts to save the Roman Republic. Cato ended up taking his own life rather than be ruled by a tyrant. A few years later, Cicero’s neck would be slashed by Mark Antony’s assassin. Yet, their heroic examples have echoed through the ages despite the Roman Republic’s tragic fall.
Whereas Cicero, Cato, and St. Augustine lived in tragic times, other heroes in Reed’s book — such as Adam Smith and Thomas Clarkson — saw their ideas brought to bear upon the world within their own lifetimes. Adam Smith’s calls for free trade and economic freedom were ripe for implementation in his classically liberal era. Thomas Clarkson’s ideas were just as ripe: his mission to end slavery in the British empire was accomplished within half a century of first being gripped by the abhorrent cruelty and evil of the slave trade. Both men serve as a testament to the power of an idea whose time has come as well as the necessity of having the moral zeal and vision to bring about progress swiftly.
Overall, the lesson is this: whether one is to live in a time of great progress and achievement or an era of decadence and decline, it should make no difference to one’s individual character. Whether one becomes a lonely martyr or a thrilling success story, a breaker of chains or a visionary innovator, a politician on the world stage or a quiet unknown citizen, one can always be a person of honesty, humility, integrity, courage, conviction, and responsibility.
No matter the course of history, one can always be a hero.
So, if you wish, take the time to step away from the sound and fury of our politics. Relax in the oasis between the book covers that is Real Heroes. Do not let the hubris of thinking history is either for or against you cloud your mind. Be a person of character for its own sake rather than for any vain hopes of future glory in the fleeting nature of man’s history.
That said, I would like to conclude with a speech written by another man of character who created his own history through literature, J. R. R. Tolkien.
I wish to share this, especially for young people who upon witnessing this bleak political landscape full of competing evils may be saying to themselves, “I can’t do this.”
From Tolkien’s The Two Towers:
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo … and it’s worth fighting for.
Yes, there is some good in this world worth fighting for, and that struggle begins with you. Live a life of conviction, day by day. Even though success is not guaranteed, you will soon find nothing — not the tall shadows of history nor the storms of the political moment — can make you forsake the hero in your soul.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and currently, the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9 am-12 noon. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback please email [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].