Thoughts on National Heroes Day

As usual, as on most holidays, I am at the office working. Holidays are a great time to catch up on work uninterrupted. I think it is unfortunate that many people understand work as primarily a necessary set of tasks to earn money. While I too feel the pressure of the livelihood aspect of work (especially since I have not taken pay since Covid-19 broke out), I think part of the discipline of doing great work is to define your work in light of the great value it brings for others yourself. When we limit the role of work in our lives to (a) livelihood for survival, (b) money for lifestyle, (c) professional identity, we end up burdening our work and our workplaces. Why? Because our three main motivations to work are what we can get out of work (livelihood, lifestyle, and identity), instead of what we can contribute to our work. We approach work with a Collector’s mindset, asking, “What can I get? What more can I get?” instead of a Contributor’s motive of “What great value can I give?” While the things we desire to collect and amass are all important things, chasing these as priorities is a sure way not to differentiate yourself because most people share the same motivation. Usually, the people who share the same whys will come up with similar whats and hows.

What does this introduction about work have to do with an article on heroes?

Everything.

I came across a common theme on Facebook, about whether a person born with advantages is self-made. In the post, the questioner compared life to the game of baseball and asked whether someone who was born on third base can say they were “self-made” when they score. My response was this: The truly self-made man is the one who refuses to play the games other people make, and, through creativity, courage, and commitment, plays a game of his own making.”

Our society loves games of collection.

In our highly materialistic society, our heroes (and villains) are those who have managed to amass large amounts of resources for secure livelihoods, grand lifestyles, and larger-than-life identities. Whether we like or hate billionaires, we identify them mostly because of how much money they have collected. Whether we like or hate influencers, we identify them mostly by the number of followers they have collected. We call a person wise by the amount of savings he or she has collected or by the number of assets he or she has. We admire intellectuals for the number of degrees, citations, awards, and positions he or she has collected too. Even the way we admire children and youth, the more talents collected, the more activities collected, the more accomplishments collected, the more proud we are of them.

Again, ours is a society of collection. The more one has in his or her collection, the more successful one is. The more collections one has the more successful too.

Even in the realm of Contribution, our collector’s obsession reigns. Virtue signaling is nothing but small contributors wanting to collect virtue points – even if their impact cannot be measured. Charitable giving is mostly a token too. We honor the number of charity involvements, the size of donations, and we covet the collection of respectability and honor from these activities. The respectable person is the one who has Collected a lot for himself and has the generosity to Contribute as well, even if the size of what has been collected far outstrips what has been contributed. Do we really think that a primary ethic of great personal collection and token personal contribution will lead to the addressing of today’s great concerns of injustice, inclusion, and inequality?

Now before you think this is a post against the rich and elite, let me get to my point. I dislike the entitled poor man just as much as I dislike the idle rich man. In both cases resides the materialist mentality of collection over contribution. The person who disdains the rich for their great possessions and the person who disdains the poor for their lack of possessions make the same mistake: they judge the person by the size of his collections.

Again, what does this have to do with heroism?

Everything.

To me, this is today’s hero: Someone who doesn’t use his or her short time on Earth chasing collections but molding himself or herself to make greater and greater tangible contributions to the lives of those around him or her. Today’s hero is not driven by growing collections or tearing down collections, but harnessing collections, his own and others, to improve the world.

Is the builder respected for his stores of concrete? Is the artist sought for his collection of paint cans? Is the writer loved for the size of his vocabulary? No. All of them are honored for how they took their collections, whatever it is, whatever size and make it is, and through courage, creativity, and commitment, turned them into contributions.

The hero walks into a world of great need, of great struggle, and of great strife yet realizes the fight is within himself. Around him are warring factions, battling ideologies, and the temptation to give in to simplistic hope. Instead of choosing the safety of a collective (another way the collector’s mindset manifests), he chooses pilgrimage, a perpetual journey to become the person his own unique calling requires him to be. He feels the pressures others put on him, the pressure to add to their collections and his own, yet he chooses another way. He refuses the mindless conventional games and ignores their artificial scores of collections. What good are our collections in the afterlife? Even more, what good are our collections if there is nothing after death? Either way, he knows that death is all our end, so he optimizes for that, and lives each day pursuing contribution, hoping, maybe, there’s salvation ahead.

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