Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.
-- Charles Dickens
A few years ago, when I worked in Japan, I was waiting to take the late-train home from Shin-yurigaoka, where I worked, to Sagami-Ono, where I lived, when I suddenly saw a drunken Japanese salaryman stumble and fall onto the tracks, the light from the oncoming train creating an eerie glow of doom that lit up the night.
I thought: This is the time, the moment, when my authentic humanity will be tested, where I will be called upon to sacrifice myself and my life for a total stranger. I will have to crawl on the tracks and hope that there is time, enough time, to push him and me out of safety. I will see what I am made of, or die trying.
Didn't come to that. The drunk dude quickly rushed to the side of the platform and hurled himself over its edge. The train was still a little ways back. His life might not even have been in danger. Hard to say.
Made me think.
Am I living the life I'm supposed to be living?
Recently, there had been a Korean exchange student who had actually died doing what had only been a brief, almost-happened-but-thank-God-didn't interlude in my mind, rescuing a Japanese man who had fallen onto the tracks, giving up his life in the process of saving another.
He died a hero.
How do you live as a hero?
Isn't there something arrogant and self-serving in thinking that you can go around and right wrongs, make people's lives better, make a difference in the world? Who the hell are you, anyways, to think such thoughts?
There is the need to distinguish oneself from the pack; there is also the need to become a part of the pack. And in between those two needs is something else, this third, separate sense of self that is a combination of the two -- a martyr crossed with a hermit, a selfless soul who lives for others and an inward isolationist who exists for himself, and himself alone.
We always battle those two forces. We either hold the door open for someone, or we don't. We either thank the saleslady at the A&P, or we don't. We jump onto the tracks, or we don't.
It's a matter of degrees.
We may not be writing our own memoirs, as Dicken's Copperfield did, but the days and weeks and months and years we pass through will be the pages that show whether or not we will be the hero of of our own lives.
The only conclusion I've come to, the one that makes the most logical, moral, ambitious, human sense is: Do it. Be the hero of your own life, however you define 'hero'. Be the one who holds the door, even though nobody says 'thank-you'. Be the one that gets on the plane. Be the one who works where others won't, teaches where others won't. Be the one that steps out of the life of quiet desperation that your peers seem to expect, if not embrace. Be the guy or girl who doesn't park in the handicapped spot. Be the one who doesn't roll their eyes in sarcasm at someone else's kooky idea. Be the one who chooses blind optimism over unthinking cynicism. Be the one who believes that the Oscars are a good and noble thing. Be the one who walks through the open door into a strange and tempting room. Be that guy on the six o'clock news, the feel-good story they always end the broadcast with, the one that returned the money he found on the street, even though he could have kept it and become rich. Be the one who jumps on the tracks to help the girl who fell. Be the one who does the unnoticed things every day that nobody ever gives you credit for. Be the hero you suspect you might be capable of becoming someday, which may be today, for all you know. Why not?
"We're all here to do what we're all here to do," the Oracle tells Neo in The Matrix Revolutions.
I'm not sure what that means, to be honest, but it has a wonderful, ringing, koan-like logic to it.
We are here to do what we are here to do.
So do it.
Be the hero of your own life.
I dare you to.