On the plane from Singapore to Manila.
I’m flipping through the latest issue of Forbes Asia’s list of Billionaires. It’s a list of the wealthiest in the world. If you’re like me, deeply immersed in a business world that is obsessed with high valuations, it’s easy to get awed by these larger than life rich people. As I read the inspiring profiles, I was reminded of a question the children of my friend Denny Andrian asked me last week in Jakarta, “Uncle David, who is your hero?”
I knew my answer already. I’ll tell you my answer at the end. I asked myself that question before and ended with an answer I found personally surprising.
Growing up my parents deliberately presented my brothers and I with stories of heroism, success, and leadership. From Bible characters to historical figures, to present-day achievers, stories of admirable characters were abundant in our home. George Washington, Winston Churchill, our namesakes, Joseph, David, and Joshua, these were the guys, among others, that we were taught to admire. This is probably why there is an inclination in my family to draw personal value from achievement and proper behavior, which isn’t bad but can be quite a burden. I think many young kids are learning their standards from what their parents or society praises in their eyes. I’ve written about the importance of choosing wisely what you make beautiful because that will greatly influence the standards of people watching and learning. But this post isn’t about that. This post is about my maturing opinion on heroism.
Here’s what I’ve learned: it’s easy to worship someone far from you. It’s easier to admire a perfect face in a movie than it is to be pleased with the soul in front of you. It’s easier to praise the achievements of someone in the news than it is to appreciate the daily service of people that have become familiar. (I wrote about this in an article Goodbye Constants.) It’s easier to be a fan of someone you don’t really know than it is to be faithful to someone you know intimately and intimately knows you – which means you know each other’s worst.
It’s easy to love from afar.
But that’s not really love. And if it is, love because we can argue the depth of our feelings, we’re not really in love with the person but a projection of that person. We are in love with what we know about someone, and if we only know a projection, then we are fools to have so ardent a love for so shallow an experience. This is why I have written many times against celebrityism, the shallow appreciation, the uneducated, simple-minded, worldly, and vain worship of people we don’t really know. Why give so much of your heart to someone who doesn’t even know you exist?
Love is ardent, yes, but it also must be true, and true love means loving the truth about someone. Is it true love if what we love is a manufactured projection? No.
In the same way, it’s easy to choose a hero, a person to admire, who is detached from you, someone you aren’t close enough to see the flaws bound in every single human being, and someone whose life can now be viewed with hindsight and perspective versus someone still on their journey. (Which is everyone alive.)
It’s this understanding that has led me to view heroism differently, a view that has greatly unburdened me and has helped me to appreciate the truly important people more. My definition of a hero is simply this: A hero is someone who lays his life down so that others may live (or live better), and the true heroes of my life are those whose lives have contributed most to mine.
Which leads me to my answer to Denny’s children. I told them that today, now that I know better, my heroes are my parents.
When I was younger I admired so many of these famous people, particularly famous historical figures and athletes. Now that I’m older I’ve come to realize that the people who have laid themselves most for me and the people who have contributed the most to me, are my parents. Yasmin helped me realize this when she reminded me that it’s important to love our parents and be grateful to them for the simple reason that they gave us our first miracle: life. And they sustained that life, many times without my acknowledgment and appreciation, as I grew up. Yet it was easy to spot the mistakes, the harshness, the insensitivity, the disconnects, the business, and the “baduy” things, even as I was blind to them paying the costs for me. I grumbled when I couldn’t use the computer, even as I forgot that they bought the computer. I complained about having too much homework, even as I failed to recognize the privilege of education. I fought them over their rules, calling them unfair, without thinking about how these “unfair” parents had worked hard to provide, to lead, and sacrificed. It was easy to compare my dad’s achievements to the achievements of the men in the books I read and find him lacking. It was easy to admire models more than my mother’s service. Here I was, thinking I was so smart, yet too dumb to understand that the people I valued did not know me, much less loved me, and the people who did love me, as seen through lives laid down for me, were undervalued because I was close enough to see the flaws.
Again, It’s easy to love from afar.
But when I reflect, when I look at the things people praise on social media, I can’t help but notice that we have become people who love from afar and do not have the philosophical rigor to think through our affections and realize, “Wait a minute. Why do I love this image so much? And why do I take this soul for granted?” Without the ability to make distinctions between affections then our relationships are bound to fail because we will be holding up our actual relationships to the standards of meticulously prepared projections.
So I’ve started a simple practice to constantly calibrate my heart towards true love. When I read a story of an awesome family, I pray, “Thank You God for my family. Thank You for my dad and mom, for my brothers, their wives, and Philip.” When I see a post about inspiring love stories or power couples, I pray, “Thank You God for Yasmin. Thank You for such a beautiful soul.” When I see a company rising, I pray, “Thank You God for my company. Thank You for our leaders, for our team members, for the things You’ve entrusted to us to steward.” When I see a beautiful home I thank God for my empty apartment. When I see an awesome car, I thank God for mine. When all I can afford is a cheap meal, I thank God that I can eat. When I find my shirts are fading, I thank God I got to wear them. When I get home to the chaos of Manila I thank God for my beautiful country. I guess this is what Paul said when he encouraged, In everything give thanks.
I think it’s wise to recognize the heroism of parents as starting points, and from there, learn to value most our relationships. I think it’s mature to love those around us, flaws and all, to be grateful for them, and to treat them as we treat loved ones, extending honor, affection, and service. I think it’s wise to learn to love who you are, whoever you are, wherever you are, with whatever you have, because theses are all gifts from God, even if we sometimes forget this comparing the impressiveness of our gift with someone else’s. Maybe as we learn to love whats ours already relationships will improve. Maybe it’s time to come close and stop loving from afar.
Before I continue, I want to put my usual disclaimer that my thoughts are my own and not my family’s or any organization I’m connected with either directly or indirectly.
I get a few critics who question my perspectives on things. I don’t mind at all and I respect our freedom to express our ideas peacefully and respectfully – even if those ideas don’t agree. I don’t think my ideas are superior, in fact, I find that the more I read my Bible and pray, the more I read history, and psychology, and biology, and geography, and business, the more I travel and experience different things, and the more people I meet, the more I find my ideas being refined, and the more amazed I become with the truths the Bible tells us, even as I find many of my long-held interpretations not only don’t make sense but don’t honor the spirit of God’s word which is love. I think it’s not only wise but necessary to take our doubts and the things we cannot reconcile to God, and to wait on Him for answers, however long it takes. Faith doesn’t mean we know the “biblical answer” to everything. It’s not asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” or in many cases “What’s the church’s stand?”
Faith, in the Christian sense, means believing in God’s love so much, that we face life with hope and love, not entitlement and fear, and that we obey what God tells us, not, what everyone around us is saying, even if that crowd is supposedly Christian.
I find that many times, we don’t really think for ourselves and are as easily impressionable about Christian things as we are about non-christian things. This is why it’s not uncommon to see that we are fans of diametrically opposite values. We subscribe to Tim Keller AND Ellen Degeneres. We sing Hillsong’s How Great is Our God AND Maroon 5’s Animals. We cry at The Passion of the Christ AND gather our friends to watch 50 Shades of Gray. We call for a stop to the objectification of women AND we (both men and women) shriek in glee at underwear shows (featuring both men and women). We gather for small group AND get drunk after. We share articles on how Christian relationships should be (which is selfless and sacrificial) AND share relationship articles that talk about the 5 Things Your Partner Must Be (which is entitled and self-seeking). We call for justice AND practice injustice in our own lives. We cry for the poor AND spend majority of our money on things we don’t even remember 3 months later. These behaviors, and I am guilty in my own ways, do not show Christian conviction but people (again, including me) easily impressed by whatever is going on, easily attracted to what the crowd is attracted to, easily moved by what is moving the crowd, easily excited by what excites the crowd, easily convinced by the noise, easily trapped by the trappings, and easily emboldened, not by personally studied and personally held convictions, but by the security of having a lot of other people doing the same thing. We say that faith should be a personal thing, and indeed it does have a strong personal dimension, yet we don’t realize that our “personal” faith without “personal” devotion and “personal” discipline will not lead to “personal” conviction but to a constant defaulting to popular opinion. It’s no longer about the principle. It’s about what fits as neatly with the people around us.
Someone who does good things out of community pressures and someone who does not-so-good things or even evil things out of society’s pressures are the same that they both are not motivated by faith but by self-interest. Both are not free. Both are so easily contained by the pressures they have no courage, discipline, nor wisdom to defeat.
This is why the popular Christian ideal has no distinction. Currently, that idea looks like this: For families, it’s a happy marriage, with a beautiful family, that goes to church (a family that prays together stays together right?), with financial stability, and active in community events. For people in relationships, they know know each other’s love language, they know their roles and fulfill them, they don’t cheat, they communicate effectively, they don’t have complicated pasts and don’t bring in baggage, and they meet the emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial needs of their partners. For singles, it’s to live in such a way that I can someday have God’s blessing on me. If I’m a good person, God will give me a good partner. If I’m generous, God will give me a lot more. If I’m serving in church, God will work on my stuff.
How do we know that this is our ideal? Because the closer we or someone is to this picture, the more blessed or devoted or right we think that person is and the further we or someone else is from this, we wonder, “What’s wrong with him?” or worse, judge, “This is wrong with him.”
Again, this is why there is no clear distinction in society because our motivations are, deep down inside, the same: self-interest. The distinction was never about things like singing a different song or wearing a different thing or hanging with a different set of friends. It was never about going to certain schools, having certain activities, or enjoying certain experiences. Christian distinction came from being powered by something else. Christians were supposed to be more passionate, more serving, kinder, more joyful, more committed, more patient, more kinds, more generous, more good, yet more forgiving because we were powered by something else: we were powered by love for God and love for others.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
– John 13:55
By THIS – ALL PEOPLE – WILL KNOW – What?
What will all people know? That we’re blessed? That we’re wise? That we’re honorable? That we’re respectable? That we’re popular? That we’re secure?
None of that.
ALL PEOPLE will know that we truly have a loving relationship with God.
What is “THIS”? How will they know that we have a truly loving relationship with God and truly follow Him?
By being as close to this description as possible, people will know that we are truly followers of Christ:
For families, it’s a happy marriage, with a beautiful family, that goes to church (a family that prays together stays together right?), with financial stability, and active in community events. For people in relationships, they know know each other’s love language, they know their roles and fulfill them, they don’t cheat, they communicate effectively, they don’t have complicated pasts and don’t bring in baggage, and they meet the emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial needs of their partners. For singles, it’s to live in such a way that I can someday have God’s blessing on me. If I’m a good person, God will give me a good partner. If I’m generous, God will give me a lot more. If I’m serving in church, God will work on my stuff.
While those are nice, and I want all of those, those are not the indicators of a Christian. Yet those are the ideals that seem to dominate our thoughts (including mine), social media, our discussions, and efforts. A good indicator that I have other ideals than that which God has for me is how I respond to when my ideals are threatened. Do I lose my peace? Do I lose my joy? Do I lose my love? The honest answer is yes.
The verse says it clearly: IF (meaning it’s conditional) we have love for one another.
This verse has been keeping me up lately, asking myself this question over and over, “If I am just like everyone else, motivated by self-interest, then am I really Christian?”
My thoughts on this subject form my exploration in a series I’m calling How to Burden Relationships, Kill Success, and Be Irrelevant. I chose this title because, after personal reflection and prayer, I found that many areas of my life need the weeding out of one particular weed: entitlement. Entitlement is the feeling inside me that I am obligated to certain things, that people are obligated to be certain people for me, do certain things for me, decide in a way that agrees with me, listen to the things I write or have to say, understand me and my feelings, that there are things due me, and that life, and by effect, God, owes me. I know I have this weed because, like with Christian ideals driven by self-interest, I lose my peace, joy, and love when certain things don’t happen my way or according to my beliefs.
Entitlement is internally-institutionalized self-interest. It’s in our heart. That’s why it’s harder to fight. It’s self-interest that has been taught that selfishness is good. It is bolstered by our fears that we won’t get what we deserve. It is fueled by envy at what others have unjustly or get away with. It is reinforced by unforgiveness that prevents us from facing today afresh because we keep taking yesterday’s painful lessons, many times unconsciously, and applying them towards self-interest today. It can be as obvious as people who are lazy clamoring for more, or disguised as a child expecting his parents to afford certain things, or be social like expecting to be invited to a friend’s wedding, or even well-meaning expectations parents place on their kids.
Entitlement makes the wise exploit and the foolish lazy, the religious intolerant, the honorable proud, and the dishonorable condemned. It makes the good unforgiving and arms the bad with a personal reason. It makes the simpleminded superstitious. It makes the individual a rebel and the family a burden. It makes marriages obligations and makes single people think they have no obligations other than towards their own advancement. Entitlement makes us have a higher sense of self-worth without the corresponding abilities and skills, and so leads to failure and disillusionment. Entitlement makes leaders lord over instead of serve.
Entitlement makes us burden our relationships, kill success, and live irrelevant lives that have no real impact on greater society. The worst part about entitlement is, even as we do this damage, we do it all with a feeling that we are in the right. We are brought back to the “if” in John 13:55, and this is why not all people know.