Soul in the Game

I was surprised recently to read these words written by scholar and author Nassim Taleb (and former equities trader). Nassim is not fond of liberals. He’s not in the conservatives’ camp either. He’s probably more libertarian than conservative. But he’s less harsh on conservatives. He holds a special disdain for liberals, especially if they’re academics or economists. Or do-gooders who want to tell everyone else how to live. So you can image my surprise when I read his assessment of Ralph Nadar, a liberal by anyone’s standards. Nassim wrote:

I developed a friendship over the past few years with the activist Ralph Nadar … . Aside from an astonishing amount of personal courage and total indifference toward smear campaigns, he exhibited absolutely no divorce between what he preaches and his lifestyle, none. Just like saints who have soul in their game. The man is a secular saint.

Earlier in his writing, Taleb had commented about courage, sacrifice and heroism. He referred to a “new form of courage, that of the Socratic Plato.” He noted the privilege of “standing up for one’s values, … the highest form of honor.” He added:

No one has had more prestige in history than two thinkers who overtly and defiantly sacrificed their lives for their ideas–two Eastern Mediterraneans; one Greek and one Semite.

People who had soul in the game. People who exhibited “absolutely no divorce” between what they preached and how they lived.

Perhaps most of us don’t have it in us to be heroes. Or to be people who exhibit no divorce between what we preach and our lifestyle. I know I don’t. But it’s nice there have been — there are — such people. They inspire the rest of us. They give us hope. They confirm that words matter. That actions matter. That lives matter. That we matter.

Ordinary Heroes

Earlier this week, you meet a hero, Vera. You don’t know it, and you won’t remember. You’re too young. Hopefully, you’ll meet heroes when you’re old enough to remember.

The hero you met is our neighbor Barry. He’s lived in our neighborhood for 35 years. Ours is a new house. The builder tore down an old house and cleared the lot to build our house. We didn’t live in the area and have never met anyone who lived where our house now stands. But Barry did.

In fact, Barry rescued them. His neighbors’ house (where ours now stands) was on fire. The homeowners were elderly. Barry went into the burning house and carried each one out over his shoulder.

A policeman arrived. Barry told him that it was possible there were kids in the house because grandkids (like you!) frequently stayed over. The policeman said he was trained to avoid dangers. He wasn’t about to enter a burning building. So Barry went back in. There were no kids.

Barry’s retired now. He’s concerned how the community is changing. All the changes and rapid growth are unsettling. So much has changed. So many people have moved away or died.

Nowadays, he volunteers at a local church to give himself something to do. He also likes attending to his yard and landscaping. He seems happy. And pretty ordinary, in a good sort of way.

Of course, Barry’s anything but ordinary; he’s extraordinary. He risked his own life to save the lives of others.

“Hero” is an overused word these days. In its overuse, it has been diminished. When you meet people like Barry, the word reclaims its roots and regains its strength.

Heroes come in different varieties, of course. And each of us probably has a slightly different meaning we ascribe to the word.

In my lexicon, it connotes courage. Bravery. Sacrifice. Caring about something else, or someone else, enough to risk something you hold dear. Perhaps even your life.

Sometimes we cast sculptures of our heroes. Or put their names on a wall. Sometimes, we don’t do anything. Sometimes, they’re not even noticed.

No one can strive to become a hero. That would be antithetical to the very concept. That would be putting yourself first.

People become heroes when circumstances confront them that call for a choice. Sometimes they have time to think about it. Sometimes, as with Barry, they must decide on the spot.

None of us should strive to be a hero. But I think perhaps each of us should strive to become the kind of person who, when presented by such circumstances, would make the right choice.