From Inspiration to Heroes
We live in an age when young people reportedly lack heroes. Perhaps more basically, they lack a framework for establishing heroes. Inspiration, a model for how they could live their own lives could provide the framework. The criteria I use for the people who inspire me are having principles, living them consistently, and being always open to change or refinement.
Principles are the carefully considered, consistent, reality-based standards for what's good, what's right, and what we ought to do. The person with principles has done the heavy thinking in advance and has a basis for considering specific situations. Without principles, a person has no choice but to analyze each situation in minute, regressive detail or shoot from the hip. Principle serves as a basis for action because, I believe, there is no difference between the effects of the good and the practical. What's genuinely good always works in the long run.
This efficacy of goodness is a powerful incentive for consistently choosing to stick to one's principles. If principles are developed and chosen reasonably, choices correctly and consistently based upon them will have desirable results.
Results-based feedback provides a check for one's principles. If the reality of a situation belies what should be happening, a principled person will always do a reality check to ensure he or she is applying principles correctly.
If reality regularly flies in the face of principle, reasonable people are always ready for a reality check of their principles. In fact, like a good scientist, a truly principled person invites challenges as a continuing assurance that principle hasn't deteriorated into dogma.
People truly inspirational to me regularly live up to these standards. Oftentimes their inspiration is augmented by a crucible or crisis presented specifically by their commitment to principle. Two of the people I find most inspirational are Thomas Paine and Emma Goldman. To begin with, I agree with them in principle. They both also met repeated and severe tests of their principles, went back to the well of their inspiration and found that it was others who failed to live up to the principles, and remained faithful to their ideas and ideals.
Goldman had to redirect her intellectual rage at class and worker exploitation and her passion for anarchism away from irrational violence. She was censored and deported for her ideas, and faced up to the reality that the Soviet Union was a grotesque aberration. Through it all, she refined her principles through her writing and living her life.
Paine went from being a darling of the American Revolution to being popularly excoriated for daring to question the righteousness of religion. In the interim, he was profoundly disappointed by the French Revolution, supposedly based on his Rights of Man, was jailed and nearly lost his head. Through it all, he never stopped a reasonable defense of his ideas.
Emma Goldman and Thomas Paine are inspirations and heroes to me. Whether today's young people will find similar heroes only their own inspiration and time will tell.