These days, when one mentions the word “hero”, many would have pictures of people in capes and tights, flying around and bravely performing superhuman feats of strength, saving the world in the process. Thanks to the proliferation of superhero movies of late, the concept of being a hero has become intertwined with great shows of power and being very overt about how one helps others. That is one way of serving others, but I believe that the Lord shows a better, quieter, and deeper way of being heroic in our service and discipleship.
The idea of heroism is one of the central pillars of the description of servant leadership that author Chris Lowney proposes. Lowney, who is a Catholic and was formed by the Jesuits, wrote about heroism of a much quieter sort, modelled after the way the Lord led the disciples during his time on earth. He was very clear in telling the disciples that authority does not come from making one’s power felt, but from service to others. Good leaders lead by example, and through showing the depth of their conviction and belief in the people whom they lead — it’s not all about them, but about the team, the organisation, the community. Heroism in this case is the denying of one’s importance and instead, helping every member of the team to feel their worth so that they can contribute to the team as well as they can.
The Lord took this one step further, by emptying himself to become even lower than most people (c.f. Philippians 2:5-11) so that even those who feel that they are at the bottom rungs of society can identify with him. The short passage from the prophet Isaiah showed how the Lord suffered to justify many, reminding us that his experience of suffering allows him the unique insight into how we may suffer in our lives. Similarly, his humanity in being tempted in every way that we are, as we heard from the letter to the Hebrews, shows that he can truly empathise with us in our daily struggles. This can be very comforting to many of us because the Lord himself, true God and true man, knows what it is like to strive to live good lives in this world of ours.
It is that very empathy that can be difficult for it to be deemed heroic. We do not need to be officially appointed a leader to display the heroism that Lowney described. It is just as important to be empathetic in our efforts to be better Christians. When we show empathy, we are better able to identify with others, and can begin to understand and even share in their struggles and difficulties. When this happens, we become better able to serve others because we no longer do this impersonally or with a certain amount of detachment. Instead, we grow to know and love those whom we serve, accompanying them and drawing them into greater communion with us and the Lord.
And that, I feel, is what it means to be a hero these days. To empathise and to serve, to know who others are while reminding ourselves that we’re not at the centre of the service — others are. During this past year and a half in the pandemic, there have been many references to everyday heroes — the healthcare workers, those working in essential jobs, those who do very normal things in extraordinary circumstances.
Heroism does not have to be seen only on movie screens or read about in history books. It’s truly present among us and it’s truly possible for us to be heroic as well. So let us follow the Lord’s advice — to be loving as we seek to serve others in whatever capacity that we can, to be empathetic so that we can better accompany those whom we serve, and to always remember that we do this as disciples of the Lord who understands and loves us always.
FR STANLEY GOH, SJ