By David Hegg
On Mother’s Day last weekend my wife and I were treated to a performance of “Les Miserables” at the Pantages. What a wonderful venue in which to appreciate such a stirring stage play! The music soared, the passion was palpable, and the story of courage seen in various modes of redemption left an indelible mark on everyone in the audience who had ears to hear and eyes to see.
The story of Jean Valjean set against the stirrings of revolution in France continues to haunt me, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, the story is riveting, and the music insists on occupying my subconscious. But what has really captured my thinking is how the soul of the play so clearly illustrates what is sorely missing in our culture.
We have lost our nobility as a people.
By this I’m not talking about having a tradition of royalty here in America. Rather, I use the word to describe a deep-rooted passion for high moral qualities and courageous convictions. Even more, to be noble is to prefer the highest good, even at great personal expense. It is to see a cause as worth our lives, and even our deaths. It is to recognize the best things don’t come easily, or conveniently, or cheaply. Lastly, nobility is seen when we as individuals are deeply committed to a cause that is bigger than our personal welfare and are willing to lose personally if it means the noble cause will triumph.
While I don’t remember the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States, I do know the line from his speech that has resonated down the halls of history. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The newly elected President was actually saying this: Be noble! Live beyond yourselves, not selfishly focused on yourselves. Understand life is more than your personal desires, and devote yourself to the noble cause of freedom, and to the personal sacrifices and courage such a cause will demand.
Today self-centered, entitled living increasingly oozes from the pores in our national skin. We expect the country to exist for us, to provide for us, and to mold its convictions to the shape of our dreams and desires. The whole idea of suffering for the common good is a lost ideal. We have lost our desire to be noble, to spend and be spent for something bigger than ourselves.
I must admit we should have seen this coming. The idea of personal sacrifice in pursuit of a noble cause suffered a lethal blow when it became popular to “look out for No. 1”, “be the master of your own fate,” and “pull your own strings.” On the way to the Pantages we passed a billboard triumphantly declaring “self-love is not selfish.” But – spoiler alert – yes it is. The self-focused life poisons its container. To promote love of self above all is the evil intention of that age-old demon called hubris whose mission it is to eradicate self-denial through a deceptive form of individualism. And in the end, nobility is abandoned in favor of self-aggrandizement, as the family, neighborhood, and nation devolve into a mass of individuals who are self-centered, thick headed and thin skinned.
Now, I know this is not true across the board. We all know those who are grounded in high morals and committed to noble causes even at the cost of personal well-being. Most of them wear a uniform of some kind, and run to defend others when danger arises. But who among us can deny that we are fast on the way to creating a post-noble society filled with entitled, self-centered, cynical, and stubborn individuals intent on convincing the rest of us that we exist to make their lives all they want them to be?
Throughout the story of “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean is forced to make difficult choices in situations where acting nobly will mean losing his freedom. Time after time he opts to tell the truth, live out the highest moral option, and courageously absorb the negative consequences. And, in the end, we are moved by his nobility and feel a visceral passion to live a noble life as well.
It is not a huge stretch to suggest that our society is, as well, made up of a bunch of miserable people. We are rich, but lonely, frustrated, despondent, and too often depressed. Yet, as the play suggests, what relieves misery and triumphs in the end is a settled determination to pursue a noble cause for noble reasons, even knowing it may cost more than we may be willing to pay.
Perhaps Jesus said it best when he declared, “If any would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Don’t buy into the “self-first” delusion. Don’t live out your days asking what the world can, should, and ought to do for you. Spend your life asking how you can love, serve and save those around you.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.