“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
So said Nathan Hale, one of the first known spies of the American Revolution, as he stood at the foot of the gallows that would soon take his life. This stalwart young man was a former schoolteacher who had offered to go on a spy mission for the American colonists. Unfortunately, while returning to his regiment after penetrating the British lines, Nathan Hale was caught and taken prisoner by the British. He was hanged without trial the next day, a true patriot in the cause of freedom. A hero etched in the annals of history.
What makes a hero? When you hear the word, you may think of stories like this one: great patriots or valiant soldiers who nobly gave their lives for a cause they believed in. When reading about Nathan Hale, Joan of Arc, or Abraham Clark, or countless other heroes who died rather than give up their beliefs, you probably stand in awe at their actions, and you might ask yourself: “Would I be willing to die for something I believe in?”
My question for you is: “Would you be willing to live for it?” At first thought, when placed between the option of living for something vs. dying for something, it seems like the latter would be harder. But there is more to heroism than meets the eye.
To illustrate this, think of the well-known Star Wars saga. At the end of “The Return of the Jedi”, Darth Vader changes his heart and defeats the evil Emperor, helping Luke and the galaxy and making a change for the better. Not long after, he dies from the effort, a proven hero by his actions.
But what if he had lived? What if Darth Vader had lived beyond those last movie scenes? He had become a hero by willingly changing the direction of his life and dying for his choice, but he was only able to continue in that direction for a few moments. Darth Vader died a hero — but what if he had lived a hero, trying to right the wrongs he had committed? Would he stick with the choice he had made at his earlier moment of truth? Would he help the cause of the freedom-seeking people of the universe? If he did, what would it have looked like? Imagine, for a moment, being in his place, a powerful villain who has done countless evil deeds, caused the deaths of thousands of people, and started a war that raged for many years. Even if he committed each day to doing good deeds, he would never have been able to make everything right. Imagine the stress and the regret and the anguish, the act of getting up every morning knowing that you have made a choice to do good, and that you must stick with it at all costs. Getting up every day, doing the same things, experiencing the same opposition over and over again without pause or relent — that’s what it means to live for something, and it’s harder than you might think.
If we look at our own history, we see that for thousands of years, sentries have been absolutely vital. Ancient civilizations built numerous defensive structures -e.g. The Great Wall of China and the Roman Antonine Wall, both of which are still around today- that without watchmen, or sentries, are useless. After all, if you know the enemies are invading only after they are on or past your wall, why build the wall in the first place?
Watchmen existed in the early civilizations, yes. But they lasted beyond that, into every war you can name. The death penalty was the default punishment for falling asleep while being a sentry in the Civil War. There were also stations for people who watched during the Cold War for Soviet planes flying over the United States of America, who would answer calls from the citizens in the surrounding area, if they spotted a plane. There are fire lookout towers on the highest hills over national forests, where people would keep vigilant watch day after day, to spot fires before they became too large. In each of these, people were attempting to avoid and mitigate the coming disaster, to warn about what was coming, which would save people’s lives.
But even with the role being vital to the protection and success of the entire nation, being a watchman is also one of the hardest jobs. To get up each day, strap on your gear and stay in one area, watching and surveying the land for anything abnormal for hours on end is both physically and mentally challenging.
Watchmen would get up and watch through the hottest of days, with the sun burning down and the bugs on their skin. They would get up each day and survive the rainclouds that rolled in, the lightning that struck, and the wind blowing in their faces. Watchmen would get up and watch through the longest of nights, with the lure of sleep and the sounds in the night.They would get up each day, and watch as nothing changed hour after hour, despite the sleeting snow, the beating hail, the longing to find shelter.
Or, you know, they wouldn’t. And like the Hessians on Christmas they would get surprised, confused, and captured. They would lose the fight.
Because you see, the hardest time to keep your vigilance is not when you know the enemy is marching in your direction. It’s not when you are the most active -it’s when you are prepared for action, even when it seems like it will never come. When the enemy isn’t near and each day seems monotonous; that is the hardest time to stay vigilant. It takes much more vigilance to get up each day and watch and prepare and fortify and endure then to be heroic in a moment, even a moment of death.
In this wonderful world we live in, where material possessions abound, where we can communicate with people across the world, find answers to questions that have baffled our predecessors within milliseconds, and where food and water and shelter are readily available, it’s all too easy to proclaim “Life is good!” and settle down to an apathetic and complacent life. But to live for something, to be a watchman, requires the very opposite of apathy and complacency: vigilance. It is impossible to be apathetic and at the same time to live for something.
When we stop living for something, things decline. Individually, we become stagnant. Nationally, we become decadent. Everywhere and everyone in-between suffers too.
Let’s go to another example from the Revolutionary War. This general was an amazing tactician. In 1775, he was an enthusiastic patriot, living for the cause of Independence. And he had to save the war. General Washington had sent him to Lake Chamberlain to prevent an army of 13,000 British troops coming down from Canada, which would destroy Washington’s Army in New York, which was already facing all it could against General Howe in New York. So, this general hastily built 15 ships over the summer to prevent the 25 British transport ships from getting to Washington’s army before he could escape.The British had 70% more firepower, and in the end, every American ship was sunk or destroyed. But the Americans had succeeded in their mission, as winter set in before the troops could march down to New York and Washington’s Army. This General who saved the war, through living for it, had succeeded. But then… he changed. He stopped living for the cause. He got concerned about recognition, wealth, and personal benefits and went so far as to betray the cause he used to live for. His name was Benedict Arnold. After his betrayal, no one ever trusted him again, not even the British. He died in London, in debt, a friendless and forsaken man, the very opposite of what he had forsaken his cause to find.
Avoiding this and enduring to the bitter end takes guts. Enduring requires a daily choice to be heroic, to be a watchman, to live for something. When you die for something, you only have to choose once. If we’re completely honest, we know that choosing every day to have a good attitude and continue in the path we have chosen to live for will be discouraging. It will often seem as if no matter how hard we’re trying, we’re still failing; as if nothing we are doing is changing anything. There may be times we give up, and will need to consciously choose to shoulder that burden of living for something purposefully.
William Wilberforce understood this. In 1789 Wilberforce submitted 12 resolutions against the slave trade, matching them with eloquent speeches reprinted in the newspapers throughout England. However, for all this, the resolutions fell through, and were postponed for the next session. Wilberforce did not stop however. The next year, he tried to abolish the slave trade again. It was defeated 163 to 88. Imagine that! He needed to convince thirty-eight more people for his bill to succeed. Rather then giving up, Wilberforce lived for freeing the slaves, starting with the abolishment of the slave trade. William WIlberforce submitted anti-slave trade legislation for eighteen years. He kept fighting what was clearly a losing fight, day after day, living for it, until he’d endured so long it wasn’t a losing fight anymore. In 1807, the slave trade was abolished, 283 to 16. Three days before his death in 1833, the movement he had started finally passed the abolishment of all slaves in the British Empire.
The eyes of the world only praise those actions that are easily visible. Dying for something is a large sacrifice, and the consequence of it is seen right away. But just like William Wilberforce, a person living for a good cause must suffer long toil, tears, and time before the results of his labors can be seen. It’s easy to despair when we see how small our everyday actions are and how little we feel, but living for something and taking our goals little step by step can make a big difference, even if we don’t see the whole picture until a long time later. Monseigneur Bienvenu in the book “Les Miserables” is a good example of this. Victor Hugo writes of the good bishop:
According to accounts of his youth and early manhood, Monseigneur Bienvenu had formerly been a passionate, even violent man. His universal tenderness was less an instinct of nature than the result of a strong conviction filtered through life into his heart, slowly dropping through him, thought by thought.
Monseigneur Bienvenu had changed the direction of his life in his youth and decided to live for something. That wasn’t always easy. He gave up great wealth and comfort to help those in need. When Jean Valjean came to him for aid, he gave the ex-convict more than he asked for, forgave him when he stole some of the bishop’s most valuable possessions, and set the man on the path to repentance and change. These actions may have seemed small or meaningless to the bishop, but this one encounter changed Jean Valjean’s life completely, affecting countless other lives throughout the book as well. Living for something leaves a legacy that inspires and uplifts, giving others hope that they can live for something too.
As well as praising what is easily seen, many times the world sees things as weak when they are actually quite strong. And what the world sees as small can actually influence big things in a big way. For example, being humble or keeping your temper is actually much harder to do than being prideful or raging in anger when you’re provoked. C. S. Lewis wrote:
A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is . . . You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down . . . That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.(Mere Christianity)
Living for something isn’t easy. You probably have experienced the up-and-down cycle of working for something you believe in. You start something new, you’re excited, and it all seems like it’s going up and up for a while. Then it drops into a flat, straight plateau. A stretch of flat, monotonous walking, when it’s hard to keep going and you question your motives. ‘Should I really be doing this?’ ‘This is so hard; is it worth it?’ This cycle probably sounds familiar, because it’s what happens whenever anyone starts something new or tries to persevere in a goal.
If you feel discouraged, like you’re walking and walking on that ever-stretching plateau, just remember this: The flat plateau always comes just before a stretch of joyful climbing—upward progress. Those who just give up when the going gets tough; those who quit when the plateau gets monotonous; in a way, those people live “a sheltered life by always giving in”. They live a life sheltered from pain, difficulty, and failure, but they also live a life sheltered from purpose, true joy, and meaning. In a world that follows the law of opposites, you can’t have one thing without the other. If you choose to live an apathetic life — never caring for anything, never living for anything — you are safe from failure and difficulty, but you will forever be kept out of the reach of satisfaction and purpose. Sacrificing comfort for progress is what living for something is all about.
Most of those who choose to live for something—to endure to the end—are unsung heroes. Some of the greatest heroes in my life are my mother and father, who have given up endless time and effort to raise me and provide for me. They have made me who I am, and I cannot imagine where I would be without all their help and guidance. And yet they have no medals; no awards of recognition for their actions. The greatest heroes, those whose actions withstand the test of time, those who live for something good, these are the unsung heroes. And yet they do it anyway. It’s completely worth it to them to live for a purpose, even if they never receive acknowledgement from the world.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ asserts, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (KJV, John 15:13) The way I see it, you can lay down your life for someone -or something- but not die. What you can do is lay down your social life, lay down your work life, lay down the free time of your life. By laying aside parts of your life for one person, you are now living for someone: fully living for that one friend, and expressing the greatest love you possibly could.
So, in a sense, a person can give up his life for a cause and yet live for that cause. Part of the reason living for someone or something is more powerful than dying for them is simply because I can not think of a single person who would be willing to live for something, and yet remain unwilling to die for it. Nathan Hale was living for the American Revolution before he died for it. I can however think of people willing to die for causes they wouldn’t live for.
Enduring to the end while living for something requires laying down your life day after day -more accurately, it requires laying it down once and ignoring the temptation to pick it back up.
While most things do not require entirely laying down your other lifes to live for that one thing, sometimes people do. My Great-Grandpa Joe loved exploring in the mountains. I know quite a few places in nature that boast such treasures as gigantic petrified trees and lots of geodes that he discovered off the beaten path. Even today, at 96 years old, he watches the mountains near his home with a variety of high-powered telescopes and binoculars, and he can tell us the animals he saw on the mountainside. However, he laid all of that exploring life down when his beloved wife got sick. He stayed home with her everyday, helping her out more and more as her abilities diminished. When she apologized for all that he had to do and all that she couldn’t do, he lovingly replied, “You took care of me for fifty years. I guess it’s about time I took care of you.” This is a couple that lived for each other. After she passed away, his ankles were too old and weak to hike ever again. But he didn’t mind. Laying down his life for her was 100% worth it to him.
After all we’ve said about how hard, how influential, how unacknowledged, but also how vital, how constant, how expressive, living for something or someone is, it might seem like this is a conundrum, a paradox. Be that as it may, the experiences we’ve seen in books, history, and our daily lives convince us that not only is it true, but it is absolutely worth it.
It does take more vigilance to get up each day and watch and prepare and fortify and endure then to be heroic in a moment. But you’re more heroic when you do. The world needs more ordinary heroes, just like you and I, living for something.
In other words, we’re not supposed to just endure to the end. Simply surviving, though it may be easier than living for something, doesn’t bring a fullness of joy. Making a daily choice to be heroic may be hard, but in the end, the sense of purpose we gain and the lives we touch for the better make every step of the journey worthwhile.
So lay down your focus on personal recognition, and instead quietly serve. Take the time to let someone know how much you care. Lay down your ignorance and become informed -and then act on what you learn. Be vigilant in watching Congress and holding your representatives responsible. Lay down any laziness and procrastination, and develop a new habit that helps every day be a day you live for something. Set aside something you love to fill a need that you see in the world. Living for something is all about doing the very best you can and becoming the very best person you can possibly be in the time you have been placed and with the resources you have been given.
The anonymous poem, “The Life Heroic”, sums a lot up:
I like the man who faces what he must
With step triumphant and a heart of cheer;
Who fights the daily battle without fear;
Sees his hope fail, yet keeps unfaltering trust
That God is God; that somehow, true and just,
His plans work out for mortals. Not a tear
Is shed when fortune, which the world holds dear,
Falls from his grasp. Better with love a crust
Than living in dishonor; envies not,
Nor loses faith in man, but does his best,
Nor ever murmurs at his humbler lot,
But with a smile and words of hope gives zest
To every toiler. He alone is great
Who by a life heroic conquers fate