[Jon Foreman of Switchfoot has written an excellent op-ed piece, which you’ll find reprinted below in its entirety.]
Goodness Precedes Greatness: A Call For New Heroes in Troubled Timesby Jon Foreman The Huffington Post October 15, 2009
I write songs for a living, which is to say that writing songs helps me to live. The song becomes a place where melody and tempo can cover some truly volatile topics. God, women, politics, sex, hatred, disillusionment- a song or a story can be a deeper vessel and more forgiving than most conversations. Poetry can get under the skin without your permission, and music can offer perspective or hope that might have been hidden before. And so the song becomes a vehicle to cover some serious ground.
These days I have a hard time writing a song that feels bright or hopeful. The unemployment rate is edging up even further and spending is down. Foreclosures are way up and stocks are down. Our headlines are full of war, natural disaster, and corruption. So I go looking for songs of hope and stories that remind me of the incredible privilege of living another day. I suppose I’m looking for a hero of sorts. Someone who rises above the situation and does something incredible.
Remember the guy who threw himself on top of the passenger who had suffered a seizure in the New York Subway? As the train was approaching he jumps down onto the tracks and risks his life to save the life of a complete stranger whose convulsions had thrown him into the path of an oncoming train. Incredible. Have you seen Team Hoyt, the dad who pushes his disabled son through all the marathons? They’ve even done the Iron Man competitions together as father and son, which makes me tear up. Or the story of Mother Teresa, a woman who gave her life to the less fortunate day after day after day. These are the stories that I want to sing about. These are stories of hope.
Such sacrifice, such patience and such goodness is rare and rightly called heroic. But these are not the heroes of our times. Wesley Autrey is not a household name and neither is Team Hoyt. If you want to know the heroes of our society, follow the money, look at the posters on the wall. We pay them seven digit salaries, we put their songs on our playlists, and follow them on Twitter. These are the heroes we emulate.
Let’s face it. Mother Teresa doesn’t look that good in a negligee. And Team Hoyt won’t sell beer commercials to the networks. But when the ball players and the supermodels end up in rehab, we end up asking esoteric questions about what makes a hero. In the movies the good looking actor who gets the girl is easy to point to. But after he gets the girl, then the house, and then a few kids and then a divorce and then another girl. Then what? After all of the special effects are gone, we’re left with an aging mortal who looks a bit awkward on the talk shows. Perhaps we’ve set our goals too low. Or perhaps we’ve got it backwards.
I would like to suggest that the best parts of our human nature can be seen in sacrifice or surrender. A mother sacrificing her time for her child, a teacher devoting her afternoons to help students off-the-clock. These are truly our most incredible moments as a species: moments of unmerited kindness. Goodness. Virtue. Nobility. Grace. Morality. These are the truly remarkable moments. Perhaps our current economic climate of debt needs a fresh perspective on worth and value. Maybe our monetary crisis indicates a broader loss of perspective.
We live in the land of plenty, the land of milk and honey, where the lottery of birth has given us the advantage of education, of wealth, and of opportunity. Ammon Hennessy puts it this way, “You came into the world armed to the teeth with… the weapons of privilege.” A trip south of the border can be an incredible reminder. We are living in the land of entitlement, one of the wealthiest nations in the history of mankind. And yet, money cannot buy us the true wealth of happiness, or peace, or of a deeper form of a meaningful life.
Perhaps the current climate of uncertainty would be the appropriate time to ask the question: what are we aiming for? Our technological achievements as a species are impressive. Our cities, our advancements in flight and our iPhones are all fairly remarkable. But there is nothing heroic about my cell phone. There is nothing sacrificial about it. Where is the song that’s worth singing? What is our measure of success? Renown psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl says that “success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Maybe the fix is not the money. Maybe two and a half hours in a theatre isn’t enough time for a hero to be born. Maybe it takes a lifetime- a lifetime like John M. Perkins. John Perkins is a man who devoted his life to those around him in simple and profound ways. He was quick to forgive, quick to utilize resources to help those in need. He has been a tireless civil rights worker who has endured beatings, harassments, and even prison for what he believes. With the help of his wife, Vera Mae, and a few others, he founded a health center, leadership development program, thrift store, low-income housing development and training center in his hometown of Mendenhall, Mississippi. His is a story of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of patience. He endured the suffering, holding on to a cause greater than himself.
John Perkins has is a song I want to sing. A song of a great man, the story of a legend. How do you replicate this goodness? Do you monetize it? Do you subsidize it? No. It’s bigger than Washington, it’s bigger than Wall Street. And it looks better than Hollywood. His is the story of a hero, a song of hope. His is a story that reminds me of a goodness beneath the system. Though Perkins was a devout Christian, he was quick to point out that this goodness is bigger than stale religion. Mr. Perkins once said that “many congregations do nothing but outsource justice.” John Perkins said it right: you can’t outsource justice. You can’t farm out goodness to someone else. Your life is yours alone. Those decisions are yours to make.
I am the system. You are the system. We, the system of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, choose goodness. Yes, the system is flawed. Yes, the church is flawed. Yes, Wall Street and Hollywood Boulevard are all fatally flawed. Yes, there will always be those who take the easy way out. But that ain’t your game. Your choice is yours alone. Goodness precedes greatness. Maybe the mother will always have more power than the atomic bomb. Maybe under the skin there is a song of hope and meaning waiting to break free. Or maybe not. It’s our story. You and I decide with our actions. It can be as small as simple courtesy. Or get involved in your hometown. Find out what the local food bank looks like. Look up the local Habitat for Humanity. What is the world you want? You choose it with every breath.
In our current climate of fear and debt I am reminded of what I hold most valuable in this life: the human souls closest to me. We need each other. Human beings will always be the most valuable natural resource on the planet. The human story is still unfolding. We are telling it as we speak. The human song is still weaving its way towards a chorus, through the suffering, through the fear. We need each other. We need heroes. Let your life be a beautiful song. We need hope. Tell a good story with the way you live. What is the world you want?