A good long while ago, my husband and I were watching the Band of Brothers series, a dramatization of the wartime actions of Easy Company in the 101st Airborne Division, during WWII. I had never seen it, but I love history, particularly WWII history, so I was enjoying it immensely.
During the first few episodes we discussed the various characters—who are all drawn, however dramatically, from real men who really lived and really had these experiences—and how and why such and such a man would act such and such a way, etc. My husband told me that his favorite character wasn’t actually the calm, serious, eminently moral Lieutenant Winters—the ostensible series protagonist—but the almost silent, hard-bitten, rumored-to-be-ruthless Lieutenant Speirs.
Throughout a portion of the series, most of the soldiers hold this Lieutenant as a mystery, and tell semi-mythic stories about his brutal wartime actions. He is not the classic protagonist, but he is tough and enigmatic, and it is one of his lines that struck me as the most powerful.
In one scene, there is a soldier who is paralyzed by fear. He is hiding in a foxhole when he should be taking action. He is ashamed of himself, but he can’t seem to break out of the fear strait-jacket.
Lieutenant Speirs walks up to him, crouches at the foxhole and tells him the ultimate paradox: “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function.” The reason that soldier had become useless is because he was unwilling to give up his life…to give himself wholly over to the task at hand.
Lieutenant Speirs, on the other hand, figured he was as good as dead already, and for this he was able to be courageous, decisive, and capable in the midst of a horrible and life-threatening situation.
This is the classic Christian paradox shown true in an entirely secular context: the harder you try to cling to your life, the more useless that life is to you. It becomes a waste. You become paralyzed—“dead” in effect, as far as anything meaningful or purposeful is concerned. Try to save your life, you lose it. Give your life up and you might survive, and save many other lives along the way.
True in battle, true in life.
More recently, I watched some films and TV shows in which characters—who were not the heroes—sacrificed themselves for the sake of the greater goal. They got no glory. In some cases they scarcely had names or faces. In others, they were the convenient scapegoat which enabled the Hero or Heroine to live. This culminated in my watching Mockingjay Part 1; I was struck by two scenes in which nameless characters took coordinated action against the oppressive government and, in so doing, ensured their own deaths. It was very moving to me, but I found myself resistant to this idea. Perhaps a few survived, but most of the people in those uprisings had to know that they were going to die. They were cannon fodder for the sake of the higher goal of defeating the Capitol. If they didn’t believe in their cause with all their heart, soul, and body, one might say they had just been used and discarded in a heartless and utilitarian manner. But they had to want to fight, badly, to do that. It had to mean something to them.
It bothered me. It had me wondering if I would ever, for the right reasons, have the courage to be like that: to run into the cannon’s mouth without having any hope of survival, or any hint of fame or glory, just so that someone else can get past the cannon to do something greater. To die quietly so someone else can live loudly. Would I ever be willing to be the nameless not-hero who enables the victory without anyone ever noticing or caring?
I realized that I always want to be ‘the main character.’ Because not only is the main character the hero, but they usually survive, albeit with a few cuts and bruises. It’s those unnamed characters in the gray background that die in spades so that the protagonist can scrape through at the last second and see what all that fighting and dying earned. Because if you die without seeing the end, how do you know that it was really worth it? How do you know you weren’t being duped?
I find this mentality—mine—a problem. Not only are we “already dead,” as Lieutenant Speirs put it, but if we’re obsessed with being the hero—the name of renown—we aren’t going to get anything done either. Our role may be small. It may not be flashy. There may be a hundred other people doing the exact same small thing. But if it serves the higher goal, does it matter if no one ever sees us or knows our name?
Besides, if you’re not willing to sacrifice something—or yourself—because you can’t prove right now that it will have been worth it, you would never sacrifice yourself for anything. It takes faith—in a cause or in person. In God.
It reminds me of Brother Lawrence, a monk whose duties were very low and mundane; he worked in the kitchen, and it was tedious. No glory. No grandness. No heroism. Just simple work that has to be redone every day (like the dishes, which are the most depressing and endless of chores). But he took “do everything as unto the Lord” to heart. He did scrubbing as unto the Lord. How was he able to do this? How could he be so humble and patient in his heart with such dull work?
Because he had already died to himself. He yielded his goals and dreams and preferences to the Lord. The result? His words and advices, written hundreds of years ago, are still read today and influence many. His small work was a seed and it grew great. I don’t know that he ever lived to see it do so either. He couldn’t guess that, in the 2000’s, a young man would read his words and decide to volunteer in a kitchen at a summer camp in order to learn how to honor God in that simple work. He couldn’t know that I would remind myself of Brother Lawrence at times when I am tempted to be angry that my work or my life seem mundane, or lack the glory and adventure that I crave. When I try to cling to my idea of my life, instead of embracing the actual circumstances, I lose. I am paralyzed.
How can we be effective—in war, or in life, or especially in the Kingdom of God? By remembering that we’re dead already, and glad of it despite the way it sounds. Dead to things that chain us down, tether us to our selfish selves, and our foolish plans. We’re free to risk everything, free to be fearless, free to do things small or great with all our hearts, free from the need to be validated by others, free from the need to prove ourselves or measure ourselves against the achievements of others. Because we’re not clutching to our life (or our reputation, or our popularity, or our fame, or our accolades) like a security blanket. And, unlike Speirs, we haven’t given up our lives to become hard or nihilistic. We’ve given them into good hands. God’s. And, if we trust him, we will not regret letting go.
“The best way to live above all fear of death is to die every morning before you leave your bedroom.”