Yesterday at the grocery store, a man handed me a wad of cash, saying “Here ya go, ma’am. Merry Christmas.” And the fifty-year-old, tall white man wearing a black baseball hat and backpack, walked away. To be honest, I was rather troubled–I looped around odd places before driving home to make sure no one was following me.
It prompted me to consider “Why me?” I attract a good deal of attention when I’m out with my two kids pushing mini-carts in the store and a baby wrapped to my chest. My guess is that me as “mom with three kids” met some kind of ideal in his head someone working hard and “doing it right,” so to speak.
The irony of me matching someone’s ideal is such an odd thought to me, because, despite how stereotypical we are, I (and my husband) never set out to be a certain way. In fact, we’ve just sort of stumbled and fumbled our way since we fell head over heels in 2006. In truth, I have watched people my age go off, continue their education, travel and do other things that we really couldn’t and I’ve felt so massively and heavily at times that I’m doing everything wrong. Yet through no intention of my own, I align to someone else’s view of “the good life,” a “hero” in a certain sense, someone to-be-admired. Strange.
Roles and Rituals
It got me thinking about our roles in life, the roles we play with each other and the rituals we use to enact these roles and their ontological status–are they real? And quite honestly, the answer is yes. Many a faddish magazine dismisses rituals (religious, family or otherwise) as “play-acting.” But the jobs we do for each other in our roles actually enact our values: as a mom, I take my kids to the grocery store, I pack their lunch, I help them decorate a Christmas tree and I snap their photo all-the-darn-time. I’m not play-acting. Yes, these jobs come with the territory of the relationship — a mom helps kids do certain things — but they are also rituals. In the words of _________, a ritual is “The story we tell ourselves about out ourselves.” I would paraphrase that to say rituals are the culturally sanctioned actions through which we enact our values.
When I pack a lunch, I am playing a role in the cultural set-up that has designated school as the socializing setting for young children; I am playing a support role to meet the kids’ basic bodily needs of eating within the cultural context of school and what that does for them and me in ordering our lives and relationships. And yes, it is a role. But it is critical, and when I participate, I enact or bring into reality my own approval and buy-in to our value system. These rituals hold our cultural, relational fabric together. To dispense with them is not to be more “real,” but to cut individuals off from relational, cultural unities and isolate them.
The roles we play then are more than empty motions, and I think people become heroes when they learn to play the roles for the good of others, to recognize and transmit the goods of community and culture. Indeed, as Aristotle said, man is a political animal. We exist in and of communities; a person alone is not fully realized. Roles and rituals function to preserve and transmit community, an essential good to human life.
To give an example, a young man to aspires to be a firefighter in order to be thought of as strong and attractive, does it for the wrong reasons. A man who serves in the job (or role) of firefighter and forgets himself as he works to save others, becomes a hero. Without his intention, he draws the admiration of others. And a person who dismisses the role of firefighter as empty, prestige-seeking has lost a sense of the fundamental value of putting one’s abilities to the service of others in a particular way.
Whether we pursue it or not, people become heroes or attain to holiness without seeking this directly–to seek it directly would be impossible. But by intending to serve, to play roles and do jobs for the aid of others in the service of goodness, we attain to what the roles and the rituals signify–goodness, unity, love–the holy, spiritual realities immanent to the physical.
This same phenomenon appears in super hero movies. The hero typically doesn’t intend to go out and “be a hero.” Rather, he or she becomes a hero when she starts to use her abilities for the good of others simply because those powers are hers. Captain America, for instance, doesn’t become a hero when he gets super strength. He becomes a hero when he breaks orders to rescue the captured POWs. Peter Parker doesn’t become a hero when he uses his abilities to win wrestling matches; he becomes a hero when he recognizes that “with great power, comes great responsibility,” and he takes up that responsibility.
Heroes and Saints
So I don’t think that any of us can set out to become heroes or saints, in Christian-speak. But I think that people become heroes when we use our abilities to service of others, for the transmitting and caring for the good of others, the unity of our societies and authentic values. And this comes out most often through our roles and rituals: brother, daughter, sister, mother, firefighter, nurse, priest, teacher, planning committee co-chair, mom’s group leader, artist, ball player etc, etc, etc.