Here’s to Heroes and Madmen
“People find heroes and madmen a perennial source of fascination, for they have no fear of life or death. Both heroes and madmen are indifferent to danger and will forge ahead regardless of what other people say.”
Note: Here are five short essays written recently, which all share a connected theme. Each could have been a separate thought and article. But I decided to leave them short as they were, and offer a “sampler” here.
Wanted: People Like Us
Heroes and madmen raise suspicion. We’re mistrustful of freaks. We don’t like rebels — either with or without a cause.
We gravitate towards people like us. We seek reinforcement of who we are, and the established opinions we already hold. We avoid challenges and opportunities that might push us into unfamiliar territory. In short, we reject non-conformists and the unconventional. We prefer surroundings and those among us to be the same as what we know, and similar to who we are.
Not too long ago, separation was easy to both enforce and maintain. Inclusion and exclusion were based on race. Ethnicity. Sometimes, religion. Now, the demarcations which divide us are far more subtle. They’re social, economic, vocational, and even philosophical. No matter where we think of ourselves within society’s vast kaleidoscope of ideas, virtually all subcultures reject outsiders and dismiss challenges to authority.
Should you doubt this, take a look at where we live and what we do. Examine our neighborhoods. Examine our schools and classrooms — both public and private. Examine our social networks and hangouts. Examine our workplaces. Examine our houses of worship. Most are far more homogeneous than diverse, far more exclusive than inclusive, and made up mostly of the same kinds of people.
Want more evidence?
Young people hang out together. Old people hang out together. Religious people flock together. Agnostics and atheists flock together. Blacks stick together. Whites stick together. The North thinks it’s superior and rejects the South. The South thinks it’s superior and rejects the North. And so forth, and so on.
Doesn’t every sizable city in America have a so-called black part of town? A Latino part of town? A Chinatown? A rich part of town? A poor part of town? Why is this so? Whether it’s Highland Park or Middleburg, South-Central or Crown Heights, Augusta National or the Hell’s Angels, the Hockaday School or the VFW, Mormons or the AARP, Mensa or your local sports bar — there is something to the old saying about birds of a feather flocking together.
Despite all the rosy talk about welcoming diversity in our culture, let’s admit that the barriers which divide us remain tall and wide.
Life’s Road Atlas
Fear of ridicule and threat of rejection are tools used to keep the members of most flocks in line. Hence, daily life for most becomes reduced to a common ritual that everyone is expected to follow. There’s even an at-large road map that goes pretty much like this. It applies to all Western societies and thought:
1. Welcome to the world. The clock is now ticking.
2. Enjoy childhood. Listen to parents and stay out of trouble.
3. Go to school and get an education.
4. Get a good job to earn as much money as possible.
5. Get married.
6. Have children.
7. Acquire as many material things as possible to flaunt success.
8. Retire and enjoy what’s left of life.
9. Death. Your time’s up.
So, what’s the grand payoff for following life’s simple nine-step plan? Do we receive a bonus for following all the rules? After doing everything right is there some kind of end zone dance? Don’t we ever get to spike the ball?
It seems about the best we can hope for is a giant tombstone, lots of fresh flowers, some tears, and a hearty eulogy that gives our life some broader perspective to those who care to remember it. Even then, a few generations from now, no one will care to remember most of us or know that we lived at all unless you’ve either done something wonderfully marvelous or terribly evil. Immortality is reserved for the polar extremes of personality. For the vast majority of the rest of us — people bunched into the middle, there’s no swan song following decades of struggle and personal sacrifice. So, enjoy what’s here while you can. More important, make the most of what you can while you’re here.
Believers in an afterlife insist that some will get a second chance. An Act II. Call it overtime, only it goes much longer. Like forever. Life on earth is merely a waiting room for something much better to come. Like being in the lobby waiting to check into the Marriott. If you’re really good, you might get checked into the penthouse suite. Most religions promise their believers eternal happiness for compliance. Call it a supernatural rewards and loyalty program.
But so far as I can tell, religion is little more than an elixir, a sugar-coated pill that makes death and dying far less terrifying for those who swallow the placebo. This is why god-based belief systems — most of which have no logic to them whatsoever — are certain to be more popular than having no faith at all, and thus be assured of an expired bus ticket at the end of life’s journey. I mean, who wants that? Absurd as it is as a belief system, religion becomes the ultimate freeroll for those willing to suspend logic and reason. Even if most of us conclude it’s snake oil, drinking the poison sure beats the hell out of perishing of thirst, excuse the pun.
That pretty much sums up religion and the justification for conformity as the price we pay for following what’s allegedly some god’s plan.
Send in the Clowns and the Crazies
Should you accept that life has no overtime, even begrudgingly or in part, then who really is the crazy among us? The freaks and oddballs, who seek alternatives in their own ways, perhaps the only way they know, sometimes venturing into uncharted territory? Are they really so crazy? For not going along and following the same rules of the game as everyone else?
Or instead, might “crazy” apply to us — the so-called “normal” people? Might insanity apply to those who walk in lock-step unison through their entire lives, never taking risks nor seeking alternatives? How sad. How utterly pointless.
Okay, if this is what you want — should you have no curiosity about the world nor desire to understand your place in it, then, by all means, do your own thing, even that choice makes you little more than an amoeba. If that’s your choice, fine. But don’t kill the agents of life trying to break from the cell and see what else might be out there.
Indeed, the defining characteristic that separates humankind from plants and animals is the capacity for thought. Make that original thought.
We see people who pursue original thought and its vestiges every day. It’s not always about science and art. Originality is manifested in many ways. They’re the ones with all the tattoos that cause you to roll your eyes. The people that do weird things to their hair that cause you to stare. The lady with 15 cats. The artist who does chalk drawings on the sidewalk. The people that move into the woods. The dreamers who stay in the garage band. The guy who sings to himself walking down the street. The girl who reads book after book. The people who climb mountains for no reason. These are the heroes. These are the madmen.
This isn’t a choice. For some, to go along with the rest of society and conform isn’t an option.
Trapped in Darkness We Shall See the Light
Think of light and think of darkness.
On a sunny day when standing outside, the light isn’t as noticeable. That’s because it’s abundant.
But stand in a dark room and strike a match. The power of light suddenly becomes far more radiant.
And so it is with heroes and madmen in a sea of conformity. They are our matches.
The abundant questions remaining in the universe, so vast as they are, won’t be answered by conformists. It’s never been that way and never will be. Rather, partial solutions and new paths towards enlightenment will be blazed by rebels. Those with the courage to venture in new directions. Those who don’t worry what other people think. Those who light matches.
The essential characteristic of leading a fulfilling life is simple. Pure and easy. It’s being who you are. Not what you’re expected to be, or trapped into becoming, or even who you hope to change into. Instead, fulfillment comes from being comfortable in your own skin.
Over the years many literary masterpieces have resounded this constant theme, the ironic wisdom of the madman in world gone berzerk. It’s not the freaks who are crazy. It’s the world that’s mad. And the heroes and madmen are the only ones who see the light, and then have the courage to walk towards it.