Our Heroes of History Were Afraid, Too; Yet It Didn’t Stop Them

WHEN WE SEE individuals, present or throughout history, who have given everything to follow their dreams, who have lived adventurous lives and even changed the world, we wonder how they did it.

The world was different then — a common trope that I’ve told myself many times when fantasizing about the days before social media, where a writer seldom had more than a journal on the road and a typewriter at home.

They lived their story, they discovered, they wrote, and if they were extremely lucky, a publisher would take a chance on them. Perhaps I can’t try my hand as a writer living in the romantic 1920s Paris of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

But it would be ignorant to believe the world hasn’t changed unequivocally for the better in the last hundred years. Author, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris writes in The Moral Landscape:

Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable. Our powers of empathy are clearly growing. Today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past. Of course the twentieth century delivered some unprecedented horrors.
But those of us who live in the developed world become increasingly disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm. We are less tolerant of collateral damage in times of war, undoubtedly because we now see images of it. And we are less comfortable with ideologies that demonize whole populations justifying their abuse or outright destruction.
With New Technologies Come New Opportunities

As the world changes and human beings mature collectively, so do our means of exploring all it has to offer. What the world needs from us — our talents, gifts and interests — change, too, with the rolling tides of a unifying planet.

The planet needs brave souls with a modern vision who will continue to bring us together. With new technologies come new opportunities. With self-publishing and blogging, anybody can tell a story that may reach millions.

Yes; the world has changed. Still, what human beings want out of life remains — we want to find what makes us come alive.

Regardless of the technological advances, this will forever be the driving force in how the individual relates to life around them. We’re products of our age; it’s our job to grow as the planet does, to adapt to the times and expand our perspective through the questioning of norms and the questioning of our own heart.

Through individual acts of courage, no matter how small these acts may seem, we may help usher in the world of tomorrow, a brighter, more hopeful world. Our heroes of the past were products of their time, too.

History Protects Us From the Unknown

Without a doubt, future generations will judge our modern day for what we are ignorant of, just as we can’t fathom many of the practices of history.

If we can understand this, we may realize that history is never just black and white. While the figures of the past made mistakes just as we do now, we mustn’t fall into the trap of judging them for what we now consider normal. There’s much, much to learn from the past.

In fact, it’s imperative that we study history if we wish to not fall into the same ways. To study history and the figures that enrich it helps us understand who we are, and how we fit into our modern-day.

Renowned Psychologist and author Jordan Peterson writes in Maps of Meaning:

History not only protects people from the unknown; it provides them with rules for achieving what they desire most, and, therefore, for expressing the (essentially undeclarable) meaning of their lives.

This is something I truly love to do, as reading biographies condenses the lives of the greatest human beings who’ve ever lived into twenty, thirty, forty hours of profound reading or listening. That is a gift to take advantage of.

When we study history and dive deep into our interests, we realize our greatest heroes were human beings who had just as many insecurities, fears and doubts as we do. Yet, they acted on what they believed and what they sought to change; that’s why we know tell their stories, read their books, and quote them now.

To the Ends of the Earth

For me, one of these heroes is James A. Michener. Michener was a writer active throughout the twentieth century who found what he loved, and then followed that curiosity to the ends of the Earth. Literally.

His life inspires me deeply, as his books serve as proof that our ideal life is possible through belief in ourselves, hard work, and sheer curiosity.

His countless books comprise the same essential quality: he explores a place in the world, writing both fiction and nonfiction, to weave a passionate tale of its history, its culture, and most importantly, its people. It will take a lifetime to read all of his works; yet this is a pursuit I’m compelled to undergo.

So far I’ve read The Sourcehis historical-fiction work based on Israel, The World Is My Homehis memoir, and am currently working through Iberiabased on his travels through Spain and Portugal.

In Iberia, Michener’s devotion to uncovering the true character of Spain bleeds from the words on the page. He doesn’t just want to explore Spain by seeing the major cities and eating at the best restaurants; he goes out of his way, where nobody would likely consider going, to unearth what makes Spain, Spain. Michener writes:

I cannot remember now how I discovered my technique for exploring a strange land, for I have followed this procedure for as long as I can recall. I enter the country unannounced and without a letter to anyone. I stand back and look at the scene before me, talk with anyone who cares to talk with me, then go to the bus station and buy a ticket for the end of any random line. This drops me in some village out in the country, and there I spend a couple of days just sitting and looking and talking. This produces some very dull days, but also some memorable ones.
A Heart In Conflict

Michener loved to find what took dedication: a city’s underlying charm, its grit, its history. I feel the same way about travel, and hope I may write books in a similar style as Michener, blending what I find utterly compelling about life into stories of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we might go.

I hope to write to uncover life’s essence.

Japan is a place which remains in my heart, and I can only imagine the joy, the questioning, and the discovery of myself and of the world that would be had if I were to spend even a year in Japan.

I can imagine Michener in the action of the stories he tells — I believe he wrote because he loved to capture what it means to be alive with a beating heart and a contemplative soul in what we know as our present day.

This, according to John Steinbeck upon receiving his 1962 Nobel Prize, is worth writing about.

Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal fear so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about.
Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.

Perhaps you wonder how those you see on social media made it to where they are; you question what it took for your greatest heroes of the past and present to pave their way. They, too, stared into the unknown; yet despite the inevitable fear, they took the leap.

We have the same opportunity to do so today, in a world that becomes more beautiful with each passing day. Through our own daring pursuits, we might even contribute to its change.

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