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.