The little things we do

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

I still think it curious that the 1991 movie Defending Your Life has lingered in my thoughts all these years. It wasn’t the filmmaking that made such a lasting impression but the movie’s premise.

When we die, the movie suggests, we are called to be accountable for ourselves, and the measure by which we defend our lives is courage. And not just the courage we associate with soldiers heading into combat, firefighters running into burning buildings or heroes facing down a tank at Tiananmen Square. It’s the ordinary variety, the minor acts of courage we perform on a daily basis.

Or fail to.

Life often calls us to speak up, to stand up, to show some gumption, to overcome those little fears that would have us shrink from danger, discomfort or conflict. To go against the crowd, the current, the way it’s always been. To not ride along. To not perpetuate the gossip, to not just look the other way. To stand firm on one’s own conscience. To say no to peer pressure, to groupthink, to those in power. To the trappings of riches, the righteous desire to retaliate.

It takes courage to live your faith in a world of hostility or ridicule. To extricate yourself from a destructive relationship. To not always do what’s expected or safe. To abandon the good life for a life of service or adventure. To find your backbone and walk boldly into the strafing wind.

I wonder sometimes how some parents get through another day, how the aged face the dark of night, how the bullied find their center and their strength, and how those with a crippling illness or disease keep smiling.

Each of our days asks us to be brave in big and little ways. Whenever I see singular acts of resolve or watch those for whom courage is a daily exercise, I want more from myself. I want to do better than usual. To rise to the occasion. To be more than the regular me.

I suppose this means I am inspired.

There was a time I thought of inspiration as some emotional or spiritual high that propelled the weak or weary to the mountaintop; or some life-changing teacher, book or story that turned one’s path toward heroic self-fulfillment; or some mysterious wind, flame or holy incandescence that lit up the saintly.

These days my sense of inspiration is less exalted, more measured. I find it in the people around me and in the things they do day to day. The way they care for family, the way they do what’s right, their authenticity, humility, generosity of spirit, the smile or grin or warmth or strength they bring to the rest of us. The grace they share. The courage.

Everyday life is not a fireworks show of extraordinary, shining moments, but it is mostly a web of ordinary people whose quiet example helps us get along, make it through, overcome, maybe find the high road — even when they don’t know their light is guiding the rest of us.

And it’s each of us, too, being looked to by others wanting to be lifted, not let down.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.