I once watched a short, skinny guy make a 6’4” hulk of a man cry like a baby.
It was the mid 90s and my wife and I, along with our two boys, were living in Cape Town. I was in the midst of a business start up and as was typical for me during my youth, I had more confidence than sense (or cash).
Unsurprisingly, things weren’t going well and the stress was starting to take a toll. So I looked for ways to escape.
I started smoking cigarettes, a habit that never took, thank God. I drank lots of cheap Canadian whisky every evening. I even got good at driving away people that wanted to help.
It was bad and I still get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think back to how I behaved during those times. God bless Lydia for sticking with me.
However, not everything I did was self destructive.
Every once in a while I’d go see a movie. If there was a Hollywood hit that made its way to South Africa, I might sneak away and catch it as a matinee, just to hide from my self-inflicted problems for a couple hours.
One such outing will always stay with me.
I got to the theater a little early and took a seat in an empty row. The lights were still on and as people filed in, four young guys sat directly in front of me. They looked like they were in their early 20s, all tall, muscular—like big rugby players. And as young guys often are, they were cocky and boisterous. As they hooted and hollered and generally acted like buffoons, one of them pulled out a cigarette, stuck it in his mouth, and lit up, puffing away like he owned the place.
Smoking was not allowed in the theater.
In front of these hooligans sat a lone, small guy in his late 30s. He had stingy hair and a patchy beard. He didn’t look more than 5’7” and he was wearing one of those old army jackets like Vietnam vets wore in the 70s.
I distinctly remember the jacket because it was summer in Africa. Everyone was wearing shorts and t-shirts, yet this guy was dressed like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
Anyway, the guy turns around and says, “Hey. There’s no smoking.”
The young smoker replied, “Fok jou”, which is Afrikaans for … well, I suspect you can figure it out. He threatened to kill the little guy if he didn’t mind his own business and then he and his buddies started jeering at the man and insulting him.
The little guy stood up, turned towards the smoking giant and plucked the cigarette from his mouth. Then, he leaned in close, his face just inches from the young guy’s. And while he stared him in the eyes, he extinguished the cigarette on the bare thigh of the smoker and said very slowly, “I. Said. No. Smoking.”
He gave the cigarette a couple nice twists on the guy’s singed skin to make sure it was extinguished and then tossed it aside, broke eye contact, turned, and sat down.
The young guy had yelped in pain at first, then started whimpering, his eyes filled with tears.
I sat there stunned, not believing what I just witnessed. And those boys didn’t do a thing. They just got real quiet, like scolded children, and stayed that way.
The lights went dim, the trailers started, we all—me, the rugby players, Travis Bickle’s doppelgänger, and the rest of the moviegoers—watched whatever Hollywood was serving up, losing ourselves for a couple hours.
Well, except the smoker. I suspect he had a hard time ignoring his throbbing thigh and bruised pride.
Ralph Waldo Emerson argued in his 1841 essay, Heroism, that to live heroically is to be true without regard for the cost—that we’re only truly alive if we do what’s right without fear of consequences.
We see Emerson’s point at work as we approach the U.S. 4th of July celebrations. The founders believed everyone had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They believed this so much that they were willing to stand up against the King of England. On July 4th, 1776, they declared their independence from his tyranny to establish a new republic.
They believed something to be true and they acted accordingly, without regard for what it might cost them. From their heroism, and the heroism of the thousands of patriots that joined them in the fight, a new nation was born.
And in a way, the actions of that little South African Travis Bickle were heroic, too.
The young troublemakers were subjecting all of us to their temporary tyranny of impertinence, forcing everyone to experience the movie on their terms.
Bickle wasn’t having it.
You might question his tactics. He could have complained to the manager or moved to the other side of the theater. Instead, he was true to what he believed, without regard for the consequences. He could have been beaten or even arrested for assault. None of that seemed to matter. All he wanted was to watch the movie in peace and quiet.
Everyone in that theater benefited from his refusal to endure the hooligans’ tyranny. We all got to enjoy our movie. And I’d wager the smoker and his buddies learned a life lesson or two in the process.
Emerson is right. You and I can only fully live if we’re willing to be true without regard for the consequences.
We don’t need to take on a squad of troublemakers or lead troops across the Potomac. But we each face daily challenges to our values, our beliefs, our agency. As we face these challenges, we must choose to live without fear—to be heroic—otherwise we will be neither free nor truly alive.