What is it about a crisis that so charms us? Fire, flood, storm, acts of madness. If the morning news is to be believed, devastation brings out the best in us.
Let me be clear from the outset: I am not making a judgment nor voicing a criticism. I am asking a question, which probably—truth in advertising—also advances a suggestion.
This week has brought news much like that of all too many recent days. Something awful, this time something evil, has happened. And bystanders became heroes. One by one, men and women rushed toward the suffering and offered acts of generosity and courage that rightfully warrant recognition and gratitude. They were not posturing for praise. They were simply, sincerely doing what was right.
But my question is this: Why wait? Why wait until after the hurricane hits, after the storm swamps, after the bad actor revels in all the blood he lusted for? Why delay doing what is right until wrong has taken the lead?
It is certainly magnanimous and praiseworthy for individuals to run toward calamity—wading through the “acts of God” and the malice of men to save and succor others. And I am certainly not suggesting that any human action can thwart divine will or completely prevent human evil. Still I wonder: What if our society—parents, schools, churches, politicians, the media, you and I—focused as much on advance virtue as responsive heroism?
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition) defines “hero” as “any man [let’s say “any person”] admired for courage, nobility, or exploits.” In part, that fits the much-used word. Heroes are those who respond to danger with courage and receive honor in return. But if you and I have not yet made that cut, must we wait until the next catastrophe to show our colors? Look closely, there’s a third descriptor: A hero is admired for nobility as much as for acts of bravery.
What is nobility? A word not much in use these days. Back to the dictionary. “Nobility” is “the quality of being noble in character, mind, birth, or rank; nobility is virtue, goodness, honor, decency, integrity.” Since ancient days, nobility has been won not merely through acts of courage but also through acts of virtue: wisdom, justice, self-restraint, faith, hope, and love.
When did we stop admiring heroes for their wisdom? Why don’t we praise the heroism of self-restraint—modesty, chastity, sobriety? Why don’t we these days beat the drum and march in parades for heroes of justice, faith, hope, love?
In the Holy Bible, David, the shepherd boy who became king of Israel, is described as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). But David did not earn that title by killing the lion, the bear, or the giant. David was not God’s hero because of his physical bravery or reaction time. God denounced and dismissed David’s predecessor and put David on the throne because King Saul had not kept the Lord’s command but had instead acted in his own best interest. David was a man after God’s own heart in the mold cast by Jesus: “If you love me, you will show it by doing what I have told you” (John 14:15). That is God speaking.
And what does God say? “[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). And the New Testament quotes Jesus in the same vein: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:36-39).
Faith, love, kindness, justice, selflessness, humility—heroic qualities. And qualities that can be exercised before, during, and after crises. Virtue in advance means sharing resources and shaping relationships to show love for God and for others. It means praying for others before we know their needs. It means reaching within ourselves to sacrifice for others nearby and far away; others who are just like us and others who really are “other”—who look, think, and act other than we do. That is not suspect, simpering, or self-righteous. That is the shape of a better world.
I honor those who put aside their own safety to rescue those suffering from hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, and mass shootings. And I honor too those who deny their own comforts and exert themselves on their knees, extending their hands, withholding judgment, embracing contradictions, and saying “yes” to the Spirit of God, who prompts and empowers virtue in advance.