I have been recently reflecting on the “heroes” who have appeared throughout my life as significant influences. Some of these figures are far removed by distance and time, such as great saints and writers. However, there are other people in my life for whom the appellation of “hero” might seem misplaced or exaggerated, since we both live in the same time and there is not a legacy to speak of in the same way. A better word to use, perhaps, would be “inspiration,” and this label is frequently applicable to people I encounter in my everyday life, even if based only on one particular interaction during which a person behaved in an inspirational way.
What I want to reflect on in this post is what attitude we should adopt when faced with inspirations, in any sense of the word, whether they be a hero of great fame and repute, or an acquaintance we talk to briefly at a party. I think that there is both a negative mode of response and a positive mode of response, and which one we choose has great impact regarding our ability to stretch beyond ourselves and grow in the direction of whatever has inspired us.
We often spout off lines about the unimportance of beauty, or at least its subservience to other, greater things. We say things like, “Beauty is only skin deep” or “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
But I want to ask: Is this really true?
Certainly we would say that a person who cares only about physical beauty and disdains knowledge or understanding of the interior is a very shallow person indeed. We would probably go so far as to say that they are “not a very good person at all.” However, concern for physical beauty does not necessarily align with the all-or-nothing approach. A person might care about physical beauty (in themselves and in others), though this is not all they care about or the primary thing that they care about. My question is not only, should we care about physical beauty? but also, is it possible for us not to care about physical beauty?
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and so I thought I would write a post in preparation. I suppose I could have written a piece and released it on the actual day itself, but I want to look at this holiday from a slightly different angle and suggest an idea for something that each of us could do on February 14th.
When I was thinking about what to write that might suit this theme, the usual ideas came to mind: of love and relationships, of being alone and finding trust in a period of waiting, or of being with another while maintaining one’s own identity and self-respect. And yet I realized I was confining myself to topics revolving around romantic relationships, which we typically associate with Valentine’s Day. The origins of Valentine’s Day, however, do not suggest such a restriction. The holiday began in honour of St. Valentine, a Christian martyr in 5th century Rome, and associations with romantic love were not forged until the 14th century under the influence of Chaucer and his courtly circle.
In our contemporary society, Valentine’s Day seems to be defined by its connection to romantic love, or conversely, to the opposite of romantic love: that is, singlehood. We are burdened with images of romantic love, but also with catchy slogans about how it is okay to be single and how a person does not need another person to complete their life. It is probably not possible to dissipate these now tightly held associations, and I am not trying to suggest that the erasure of such links would be a good thing. But, what if Valentine’s Day did not have to be just about one or the other?
How does real change come about?
When I pose this question, I’m not referring to broader social change, but change at the level of the individual. To what degree are we, each as individuals in our own right, able to influence or effect change in other individuals around us?
I think this is a very pertinent issue, because the idea that an individual can really influence another is one that comes up in teaching, parenthood and evangelism, to name a few. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call the two roles in such a relationship the teacher and the student (though they could just as easily be friend and friend, sister and brother, or any number of other combinations of roles). The teacher presumably has his own motives, extraneous to the mere subject being “taught.” Though passionate about the subject at hand, perhaps he also experiences great enthusiasm at the prospect of being the catalyst or cause of a “change for the better.”
What gives a person value? Although if faced with the question, most of us are unlikely to deny a person at least some measure of innate value, we often deny them this value by our actions, words and thoughts. We make determinations about whether a person is deserving of “respect.” We constantly form internal (or external) judgements, labelling the people we know or even (more frequently) the people we do not, as “bad,” “pathetic,” in some way “less.”
Where do these judgements come from, these evaluations of human worth? Because that is indeed what we are doing: evaluating someone or something. Yet there is an essential distinction to be made here. Evaluating an act, a choice or a set of values is different from evaluating a person. Of course if we neglect or refuse to make this distinction between “right” and “wrong,” we stray down the dangerous path of relativity, defining truth as whatever feels good, rather than Truth with a capital “T.” But while judging an act and deciding that it is not “right” or does not reflect the Truth for which humans were intended holds the person accountable for their actions, it does not strip them of their fundamental dignity.
For me, fear has always been such an omnipresent and unavoidable participant in life. Between fear and love, there is a constant struggle, a struggle that seems as though it will be ever ongoing, never complete, until the ultimate end. And yet, it has been said that “perfect love casts out fear.” I think we all have an idea of what this means, and simply reading the words provides a certain level of comfort. But how far does this “perfect” love extend, and how permanent is this banishment of fear? Is it truly possible to “cast out” fear while in the transient and shifting world, or is it only a promise for another world to come?
I think it can be both, and that there are often unexplored depths to the profound relationship between love and fear. On a first and fundamental level, “perfect love” refers to God. Since God is love, any genuine display of love reveals part of His nature. Because of this, we can turn to Him and in His presence, experience the divine love, the “perfect love” that is stronger than and has no need of fear. This is the only way in which we can truly vanquish fear, or any kind of evil. By placing ourselves in God’s hands, the fear no longer belongs. It is no longer necessary. We can see clearly the distance between lies produced by fear, and Truth. Within these moments of clarity, fear is exposed for its powerlessness.
How are you?
It’s a question we are likely to hear multiple times each day. But its meaning can vary wildly. When a person asks me how I am, more often than not, I respond with a single word: good. After that, I usually reciprocate the question by asking how they are, and I receive a similar answer. In this case, the question is like a ritual: a scripted piece of dialogue with which we are all familiar. It doesn’t carry much weight with it. Neither I nor my companion have really gained any new information, but we have said the things we were supposed to say. Now we can talk further or continue on our way, with the knowledge that we checked off a box in the expectations of common courtesy. We asked about them and we cared.
The question can also mean another thing, requiring a little more detail. In some cases, How are you? is translated as How are you doing? or perhaps What are you doing? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. We haven’t seen a friend in a long time and want to know what they have been up to. They tell us the evident things: the activities and achievements that are easy to explain and offer us a little window into the external of their life. These things are important, and knowing these things are important to any friendship or relationship.
But I wonder if it is enough.
When we enter the world, awareness sets in. A sense of the other is eternally present, an internalized gaze directed towards us from those capable of judgement and praise. The significance lies not in the fact that we are being seen, but in the knowledge that we are being seen and how this affects our own actions.
Our current culture emphasizes visibility in all aspects of life. Social media actively promotes the constant display of private, everyday activities. Perception is everything. There seems to be an unstated assumption that unless something is documented, it doesn’t matter; that unless something is shared, it has no worth. Actions begin to gain value for how they can be shown to others, rather than for the carrying out of the actions themselves.
Does this heightened awareness influence our behaviour? I would argue that it alters our intentions and expression of self quite profoundly. Our intentions are what direct our path; they are the foundation and motivation behind our actions. So what happens when thoughts of external reactions begin to seep into our plans and decision-making processes? What happens when we set out to do something with the knowledge of how it will make us appear?