Heroes in Action
He did not believe in me, but he did not believe in many things. Perhaps he’d once believed in hard work, but only because he also believed that hard work would bring rewards to him. In that sense he was corruptible, for work is a virtue, a reward in itself. Work is not a bait or a lure that brings the reward — of riches, glory, status, pleasure, material possessions.
I’d once upon a time thought the world of him, and that world might even have been a domain he might have inhabited: honor, truth, justice, fairness, even strength. Within a couple of years of meeting him, however, I perceived that world — his province of a well-ordered machine that he, and only he, ran — began to rot from within. A fish rots from the head down, and his was a rather large head. The haughty worm as it turned within this man was a savage rotting hunger for more money and more control over other people. It was the worm that ate away whatever goodness had existed in this man.
He kept an eye on the ever-perceptive me, to ensure that I didn’t see the extent of his corruptibility. To protect myself, I had to feign friendship until I was well beyond his sphere of influence. To this day, I sometimes feel the need to forgive myself for impugning friendship in that way. But we sometimes have to compromise an ideal in order to survive, and then try to rectify the wrong, and reclaim the ideal, even as we ask forgiveness of our Maker, who always understands.
Therein is where this man went so very wrong. He compromised not just one, but many ideals, and not even in order to survive — but in order to get and to gain and to work the system. Feeling self-justified that he was working, and not gaming, the system, he never tried to rectify any wrong done to others in his acquisitive quest. He’d probably convinced himself it wasn’t a wrong: it was, after all, for the “greater good,” except he was receiving the lion’s share of that good.
He felt he was owed some leeway with the truth, some wiggle-room with morality. He was different than other mere mortals; he was exceptional. He failed to see the exception he was making was the initial undoing of everything that might have been exceptional within him. The slippery slope gets only more slippery with the heavier load of self-entitlement.
He’d been an authority figure, one who made commanding decisions over the lives of many people, young and old. He primarily used that position to position himself, with ever-greater leverage over others, all in the name of running his world as he saw fit. The abuse of power was subtle, at first, but it was that worm, again, turning and eating away his conscience. This rising tide ultimately did not lift all boats because the tide began to recede, and many boats ran aground, or were abandoned. The wise boats sailed away from the increasingly fetid pool.
Confident that he was the one calling the shots, he was in fact merely doing the bidding of the rich and powerful who paid his salary. Silently smug in his sense of security, he did not see that security erode from the very ground upon which he, and so many others, stood. He let slide the sins of others in order to solidify his worth among the arrogant Powers-that-Be. A girl from the wrong side of town was gang-raped one day in a locker room, and he did nothing to punish the boys of affluent fathers. The girl was blamed for the crime committed against her.
I was also a girl from the wrong side of another town, looked down upon for her situation, her low station in life. Somehow, my being an orphan was something this authority figure willfully ignored, so that he did not have to confront the glaring lack of empathy within himself. It’s taken me many years to accept the callousness of my treatment by someone whom I’d believed thought that my being fatherless, and, in a very real sense, motherless, only enriched my hard-fought achievements. How sadly wrong I was. This man fled those very facts of my existence, viewing me as someone who wouldn’t go very far because I knew no one of stature. I was a nobody, or rather, I came from a family of nobodies, and he had no use for nobodies.
I’ve pondered over the years whether this man had ever cared about anyone, or whether his avarice had quickly crowded out any concern for his fellow human being. Those two strains do not co-exist for long in the human heart. The human heart is hard for anyone to fully discern, especially when its owner single-mindedly conceals its truths, even from himself, a self that shrank with each slide down that slippery slope of selfishness and greed.
I was a person of oh so many disadvantages, and this person was so carelessly blithe about his oh so many advantages. He did not hurt my feelings: he hurt my very young sense of self, a self that was just beginning to bud, to bloom, to aspire toward fruition. My feelings I can repair. A wounded, even damaged, sense of self is not easily mended. My art has been part of that healing work.
One rude winter day, this man found out that he, like anyone who sells his soul for money, was expendable. Pride goeth before a fall, and the fall was hard. It might have been less severe had humility resided in the heart of this man, but, by that time, his lethargic indifference toward others had sealed off his heart from ever beating true. He was wronged by the very people who had wronged so many others, but he’d looked away from those injustices. He’d had so much to gain from the withholding of complete justness. His hand had played a part in balancing the scales between right and wrong, but his fair shakes had rarely been fair. Somehow, the big hand of fate had balanced the scales.
The worm in its final turn left this man cruelly alone, and bitter, after he’d cruelly abandoned everyone who had ever cared for him. The end of his life was wretched, a scar upon the memories of those who had loved him. Even in death, he sought a cowardly revenge upon a world that he believed had failed him. That belief, only in the wrongs done to him, had become his sole belief, the axis around which his worm had turned.
Heroes die hard, but especially when they were never really heroes to begin with. In a world that hungers for heroes, be careful with your admiration of any person who talks, but rarely commits to action. The difference between doing and talking can make all the difference between faith and betrayal, delight and disappointment, the warmth of truth and the icy chill of deceit — and a hero and a fraud.