Atticus Finch. That’s who I want to be when I grow up. He’s the greatest guy ever – a good dad, a good lawyer, doing the right thing. And he knows he’s not supposed to win, but he’s doing it anyway. —Sean Patrick Maloney
All my life, I’ve been easily inspired by characters in books. Fiction (I should say good fiction) illuminates any number of character traits, helping the reader not only to see but to connect viscerally with both those traits they wish to emulate and those they know (to their chagrin) they already possess.
And so I have emotionally connected with passionate, dramatic, loyal Jo March in Little Women. But also with Amy March, her vain and jealous little sister. With girl detective Nancy Drew, but also her less-perfect counterpart, Trixie Belden.
Then there are characters like Atticus Finch, or Aragorn or Jane Eyre whose goodness and courage are legendary. These characters teach us about integrity. And while they may wrestle internally with doubt, the reality is that we know they will unerringly choose to do the right thing. That’s why we love them.
And that is one of the beauties of fiction.
In real life, I can find examples of many people who inspire me with their enthusiasm, their activism, their passion. Or, conversely, who allow me to be forgiving of my own humanity, by reflecting my own foibles and failings back at me. It is much harder to find examples of people in my daily life who choose to do the right thing when doing the right thing is truly hard to do: when it requires personal sacrifice; when to do so one has to put away feelings of righteousness or bitterness; when there is nothing remotely rewarding about taking that path. Much as I might wish to, I am not likely to serve as this kind of example for others.
One of the reasons it may be difficult to discover such individuals in our daily lives is that they are masquerading as ordinary friends and neighbors. They don’t appear to be starring in their very own epic tale. Instead, they appear to be schlepping through life like the rest of us. Now and then, though, the scales fall from our eyes and we can see the paragon shining through someone else’ mask of ordinary. When this happens, it can be breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Moving.
I had one such experience last week.
A dear friend recently lost a parent. I could attempt, here, to describe my friend’s relationship with her parent in detail, but that isn’t my story to tell. Suffice it to say, there were many valid reasons for my friend to have broken off contact with this person. But she never did, as much as others argued (myself included) for her to do so.
Several years ago, the parent’s health began to decline. As it did so, it became clear that other members of the family intended to either avert their eyes or to take advantage in a grab for money. So my friend stepped up to the plate, showing both compassion and resolve to do the right thing for a person who neither appreciated nor, arguably, deserved such consideration.
For years my friend worked with her parent and with the parent’s healthcare providers. Due in part to personality, and in part to the ravages of Alzheimers, the parent was manipulative, verbally abusive, and regularly leveled false complaints against my friend. But day after day, week after week, my friend did whatever she could to provide care, comfort and presence. Some days, my friend could hardly hold herself intact emotionally. It was never easy.
She didn’t have to, there was no one policing her choices. My friend could have put her parent in a care facility and felt justified in staying away. God knows, it would have been so much easier to do this. But she took the harder course. At the end, when the parent took a final breath, my friend was there. Only one unpaid hand touched that parent and attempted to ease suffering. My friend: hero, exemplar, and shining example masquerading as ordinary.
Grace is a gift given when least expected – unearned, yet generous. Further, grace expects nothing in return. By this definition, my friend offered grace (repeatedly) to her parent. Being an instrument of grace in that parent’s life took determination, integrity, the discipline to continue digging deep in service to deeply held inner values. Dare I say it – against all odds, it took love.
I can think of a number of fictional characters who might have the wherewithal to accomplish what my friend did. For them, it would be easy – their author need just envision it, then write it. Voila. For the rest of us ordinary human beings, it is never so simple. Despite our best intentions, we have difficulty staying the course. The harder it is to do the right thing, the longer we must commit, the less likely it is we will. Doing the right thing without thanks, accolades or public pressure – that takes something special.
They say that truth is stranger than fiction. I would add that, no matter how poignant and lovely a story (and its characters) may be, truth is way more beautiful for being real. I am so grateful to have a friends’ example of grace to inspire me.
And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen… yourself, right now, right down here on Earth. — Bradley Whitford