Don’t meet your heroes, we are told. It’s not the worst advice, since they so often let us down. Interreacting with anyone is a humanizing act, and meeting our heroes reveals that they are human just like us. And that’s not always a pleasant experience. But most of the time, we don’t have to meet our heroes to be disappointed by them. We only have to watch what they do and listen to what they say. There are some fine leaders out there, but too often the people in whom we place hope for change in our congregations and communities, and countries cannot deliver on their promises.
They should be held accountable and we deserve leaders with integrity and courage. But, if we are honest, it’s partly our fault. We have placed too much hope in celebrities. Rural folks like to think we are not susceptible to celebrity, but recent national elections have reminded us that this is not always the case. We value self-reliance and local community but sometimes we turn to “strong man” leaders who promise to save us.
The truth is, however, no politician can “make America great again” or repair the “soul of our nation.” They can lead by example, work to pass helpful legislation, and inspire the nation by word and deed. But none of those, by themselves, are enough to heal our communities or create pathways out of poverty. The work of repair and rebuilding that our historical moment requires includes all of us.
We can’t do it by ourselves but neither can it be done without us.
Maybe part of the problem is our fixation on charismatic leaders coming to save us. If we are going to heal and if our communities have a chance at thriving, we are going to have to rethink some things. We are going to have to flip the conventional wisdom of top-down change and give bottom-up another try. To do this, we are going to have to disinvest our hope in powerful, public heroes and reinvest it in hidden ones.
I’ve come to believe that most real heroes are hidden. Most saints are unseen. You probably know some. You may even be one of them. Whether our communities fail or thrive has a lot to do with sustaining and celebrating the work of hidden heroes and unseen saints. I agree with fellow Quaker Rufus Jones who wrote: “I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles in which vital and transforming events take place.” In the local house of worship, barber shop, coffee shop, city hall, and even barns and backyards, there are “vital and transforming events” taking place as people turn to one another to innovate, problem-solve, and repair the social fabric of their communities.
I come to this perspective partly through my own disillusionment with political figures. I’ve been involved in national political campaigns and citizen lobbying. It was important work. But I’m not sure the work of place economy, household management, and building deep relationships is any less important.
Kentucky writer and monk Thomas Merton wrote a letter to peace activists telling them to “not depend on the hope of results.” They were bound to be let down by conventional definitions of “success” and “effectiveness.” Instead, he suggested they find fulfillment in the rightness of the work itself. When they let go of their hope in results, they would “gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
At our best, rural and small-town folks model this principle. We don’t get caught up in the topics and trends that make national news. We don’t obsess over traditional metrics of success. Instead, we focus on doing our work well, loving our families and neighbors well, and leaving a legacy for our kids or community. Country life is all about “the reality of personal relationship.” But I fear that many of us have forgotten or neglected this. Some of us have even outright rejected this. It’s time to remember and reclaim it.
I also come to this perspective because of my Quaker and Christian faith. In some ways, Christianity is a fairly outward-facing faith. We talk about going out into the world to spread the good news and let our works of service be seen in order to glorify God. But there has always been a “minority report” within scripture and tradition, celebrating the hidden work of God and God’s people. The apostle Paul encouraged folks in Thessalonica: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands.”
Jesus himself lived the majority of his life in obscurity. Father Henri Nouwen wrote: “When we think about Jesus we mostly think about his words and miracles, his passion, death, and resurrection, but we should never forget that before all of that, Jesus lived a simple, hidden life in a small town, far away from all the great people, great cities, and great events.” These so-called “hidden years” are themselves redemptive. They remind us of the holiness in hidden work—working with our hands, learning from our teachers, caring for our families, and praying with our local congregations.
The obscure and unspectacular qualities of rural life are sometimes embarrassing to us. And sometimes they make us feel like our lives don’t matter. We identify with what Indiana writer Scott Russell Sanders confessed: “For all my convictions, I still have to wrestle with my fear—in myself, in my children, and in some of my neighbors—that our place is too remote from the action.” Many rural folks can relate to that fear. How does Sanders deal with it? “I deal with my unease by asking just what action I am remote from—a stock market? a debating chamber? a drive-in mortuary? The action that matters, the work of nature and community, goes on everywhere.”
Indeed, the action that matters goes on everywhere. Our small towns and rural regions are no exception. In fact, one could argue that we are more attuned to the work of “nature and community.” So we can hold our heads up high. We can do our work with dignity. We can love our families and neighbors with full hearts. And we can see our hidden lives as holy and heroic. Vote for a good mayor or senator or president. But remember that our “little” and local work is just as important and sacred, and effectual in the truest sense. We need each other; we have each other. And the work we are doing together matters. And that is our hope.
Andy is a writer, Quaker minister, chicken-keeper, and distraught Reds fan. He carries a special concern for rural leaders, leading to his recently published book “Recovering Abundance: Twelve Practices for Small-Town Leaders.” A native Buckeye, Andy now lives in East Tennessee with his spouse, Ashlyn, their blue heeler Cassie, and their laying hens. He currently serves as associate director of the Quaker Leadership Center at Earlham School of Religion.