Whether we are team Marvel or DC; Jedi or Enterprise; Potter or Percy Jackson, we all have our favorite hero stories. And don't get me wrong, I love them too. These stories, and the worlds in which they take place, are filled with joy, hope, and glimpses of the extraordinary.
But for us everyday mortals, the love of the extraordinary can be a problem.
You’ve probably seen the story going around about the high school principal in South Carolina who works the night shift at Wal-Mart, donating his paycheck to students and families in need. This story has gone viral, and is billed as a ‘feel good’ feature in the newsfeeds. But I find way too much about the backdrop of this story troubling to feel good about it.
That is not to diminish in any way the incredible kindness and sacrifice of this dedicated educator. I’m just concerned about how readily we laud such individual acts of mercy, without questioning the corporate realities that make such acts necessary. We celebrate a man who will jump into a chasm of need-- but we don’t jump to close the chasm.
Furthermore, we celebrate the employer for donating $50,000 to the local high school; without acknowledging that employer’s role in creating the chasm in the first place.
The reality is that a company with the reach and resources of Wal-Mart could help create meaningful solutions to complex social issues if they wanted to… but they don’t. For starters, as a baseline minimum, they could pay their employees a living wage and interrupt the cycles of poverty. But they don’t.
Another layer of reality here is that educators like Principal Darby are, themselves, underpaid. Because we (the collective “we,” and the representatives we elect) have systematically defunded public education for decades. This means not only that our educators are not valued as they should be; it means, also, that generations of adults are not equipped with the tools they need to be successful in this economy so fraught with chasms.
In such an economy, we are eager to celebrate a wealthy philanthropist for donating a million dollars. Which is the equivalent of you or me throwing some change in the [insert local cause] jar at the Circle K. Is our heart in the right place when we drop those dimes? Sure. Did it truly cost us anything to make that donation? Not really.
We marvel at the benevolence of billionaires. But we don’t ask that billionaire to look into the chasm--that growing divide where a few at the top of the food chain have more and more power, while untold millions go hungry.
We scarcely want to look into that chasm ourselves.
It feels better, of course it does, to read the feel good stories. Seeking emotional satisfaction over economic reformation, we put band-aids on amputation sites. We are led to build more temporary shelters and emergency relief programs instead of seeking lasting solutions to poverty.
We value individual acts of mercy over communal acts of justice. I have a theory that this dynamic is related to the American bootstraps narrative, that toxic fairy tale that everyone has the same chances, and begins at the same starting line… and if we just work hard enough, we, too, will find our fortune. Those who live in need must be somehow lacking in their effort or worthiness, right? Meanwhile, the (diminishing number of) middle class folks emerge as the heroes of our own stories.
In the spinning of this particular tale, we don’t just seek a savior; we also want to be one. At the personal/individual level, of course. Where this gets messy is… well, if the bootstraps narrative were real, we wouldn’t need heroes at all. Everyone would have enough, and we could go about practicing individual kindnesses without the need for radical social transformation.
It’s complicated. What I know is that people like Mr. Darby, and anyone else who works and lives and gives to make their communities a better place, should be celebrated. That isn’t the problem.
The problem is, we cannot “feel good” about these individual acts of mercy without also questioning the world in which such needs arise. In so many ways, it is a world of our own making. The more we idolize wealth and individualism, the more we elevate the wealthy; and in turn, subjugate the poor. It is no surprised that our dubious values system has elevated leaders who are, themselves, corrupted by wealth, and govern only in the interest of the wealthy.
This unbalanced world we have built, by extension, is a world that only we can change.
In that regard, then yes, I guess we do need heroes. And what do all of our favorite hero stories have in common? Our heroes learn that they are nothing alone. Their "bootstraps," or any other special powers that they have, are almost always an illusion of sorts. They need a tribe, a team, a league, an order, to do any sort of meaningful good. Sure, one alone can save a kid from a burning building, neat trick. But to keep the whole city from burning--to save the ship, to stop the bomb, to push back the forces of darkness-- they need each other.
As we continue to recognize and celebrate individual acts of kindness, we should also be watching and supporting those who work for meaningful justice. Organizers working to raise the minimum wage; community leaders working to address systemic racial injustice, particularly in our education and criminal justice systems; educators fighting for the very concept of true ‘public’ education; scientists working against the clock to protect the environment; and many of you who are marching, writing, calling, gathering, and doing whatever it takes to bring about change at your local level. Wherever you are, find the folks close to home who are digging deeper, and then go put yourself in that story.
Heroes don’t ignore the chasm. They face it-- and then they jump in.