Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us:
The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning ... that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported...An extraordinary 2007 essay in Bill Whittle's excellent blog “Eject! Eject! Eject!” made reference to what are essentially invisible heroes: heroes whom you never see, never notice, and whom the earth may never even note are even present. But these silent, hard working few -- these one in a thousand or fewer - are referred to both in the writings of Plato and in the writings of the Old Testament as “The Remnant.“
Noah was found perfect and righteous; in the time of wrath he was taken in exchange for the world; therefore was he left as a remnant unto the earth, when the flood came.
- Sirach ("Ecclesiasticus"), ch. 44, verses 1, 2, 8, 11
The idea of the "Remnant" is that these are what are left when the storm passes, or those few natives who remain in a land after it has been ethnically cleansed; but even when there is no obvious storm, it still remains to them to keep civilization going, and receive neither kudoes nor recognition for their work in this world.
But the storm does not have to be actual, like an arriving Babylonian (or German, or Serb, or whatever) army scraping the land clean. Sometimes the storm is metaphorical: an overwhelming wind of social injustice, or gross evil. Sometimes, the threat is not obvious to the vast majority, who cheerfully and unknowingly go on with their lives not knowing that they are in the middle of a storm, while a few brave souls, like Frodo with the Ring in the heart of the Shire, struggle with the power of an unseen Mordor.
It is these folks who are the true heroes of life. It is these folks who struggle whom I call The Tattered Remnant; the individuals themselves I give the title of Tattered Remnants.
The archetypal Tattered Remnant is the fictional George Bailey of Bedford Falls, New York: a man who silently, but with full effort, devotes himself to building his city and his community, and in his case, not knowing the good he has done until he is at the furthest edge of despair and is ready to throw his life away.
Occasionally these individuals are remembered but often, indeed usually, they are not.
But the Tattered Remnant is not a pleasant occupation. Neither is it something that one would desire to do. It is a call to duty, a requirement to endure an enormous burden, perhaps to one's own destruction.
As Mr. Whittle put it in his essay:
I have been, and remain, a staunchly anti-elitist individual. I find the idea of belonging to a special group the most dangerous philosophical ground you can stand on. But what is remarkable about this Remnant is that the people that compose it seem to be drawn completely at random. It is not a philosophy. It is a frequency. You are on it or you are not. And this is not a million-dollar lottery win, either: it is a call to face unpleasant facts and impending hardship. It is a quiet summons to duty. It often makes one uncomfortable, and, most often, this unfocused, vague desire – this need – to do something useful most often makes one feel very much alone.The Tattered Remnant is not made up of superheroes. I must say I am not fond of the concept of the "superhero." Superheroes are literary constructs, tin gods for us to fantasize about, not real people. The stories of the heroic that go back to the ancient past are about individuals of enormous strength, enormous power, sometimes enormous beauty or perhaps enormous wealth, who use those extraordinary attributes to accomplish extraordinary things. They are heroic not because they are brave as such; they are brave because they are powerful. It's easy to be magnificent with your wealth if you have hit big on the lottery; it is easy to be a superhero if you have been granted the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
What’s remarkable about the Remnant — to me, anyway – is the sheer unpredictability of its composition. Perhaps that homeless drug addict, panhandling under the overpass… perhaps he will be the one to run into a burning building while other decent and good people stand idle, waiting for something to happen.
Waiting for someone to happen.
- You Are Not Alone, Part 1
Achilles, perhaps, is the archetype of this sort of hero: untouchable because of his mother's dipping him in a magic river, invulnerable in all but one spot, where his mother held him by the ankle. But literature since then show similar characters: Samson, or Hercules; and later on, Superman, Spiderman, Batman, V of V for Vendetta, or even Harry Potter.
But these are in fact not real heroes at all.
When I was a peacekeeper in Bosnia, the movie actor Arnold Schwartzenegger came to see us at Eagle Base on a USO tour in the aftermath of 9/11. There were two things about that visit that I remember with remarkable clarity. The first was how short the man is in real life–he's only 5'4"–and for all his muscularity, he is far less prepossessing in the flesh than he is on the big screen carrying a weapon of unusual size. But the other thing I remember him saying was this: "I am not a hero. I am an actor. I pretend to be a hero. You guys are the real heroes." It's hard to explain the impact of hearing that--from Ah-nult!--on a bunch of nineteen year old kids six thousand miles away from home in wartime, but believe me, it's significant.
I believe that heroes are, in fact, although relatively rare creatures as a percentage of the populace, are still around us today in great numbers, and that they are generally nothing like those portrayed in most movies. These heroes are the quiet ones, much closer in spirit to the Little Dutch Boy than they are to some cartoon-drawn caped crusader. And yet it is the Little Dutch Boy, with finger in the dike, saving the city from destruction while forever wondering if and when he will be relieved, that is the true archetype of the real heroes today.
My heroes are not saints! I have gone out of my way, in fact, to exclude saints and great men and women from my story. There are no Gandhis here, no Churchills, no Roosevelts, no Lincolns (although these men were all surely had the Tattered Remnant nature). Neither are there any of the canonized; none here have been raised to the altar. Some of my Tattered Remnants--in particular Richard Sorge, Oskar Schindler, James Poillion, Ignaz Semmelweis--can be seen as despicable in a lot of ways. But their acts mark them as being in the club. It is not their greatness or extraordinary talent that necessarily marks the Tattered Remnant but their extraordinary courage.
The metaphor of the Tattered Remnant can be found throughout history and in all cultures. Perhaps the earliest noted in literature is found in the Mahabharata, in the section called the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of God. In it--boiling a very long story to a couple sentences--a very reluctant hero named Ajuna is facing a terrible decision: in order to save his family and his brothers from extinction, he must make war on his evil cousins. He trembles before his charge as he does not wish to shed the blood of his own kin. The god Krishna speaks to him and encourages him that when duty calls, one must step up and take action that makes the soul tremble. And so Ajuna does, emerging victorious.
Now, this is a song of military valor in the face of family obligation and is, perhaps, the most primitive form of recorded Tattered Remnant behavior. Every culture has its great military heroes who choose to step up and act. Arthur drawing his sword from the stone against the Sachsennen; Serbia's Tsar Lazar choosing a heavenly kingdom through defeat by the Turks; Roland facing Islamic invaders; Spain's La Galana with her cudgel, battling Napoleon's cavalry; Skanderbeg driving out his imperial masters from Albania.
But the Tattered Remnant means far more than the drawing of a sword (although it can mean that as well).
Imperial China has its own tradition of wandering, unknown heroes: the Youxia. As Wikipedia puts it:
Youxia literally means ‘wandering force’, but is commonly translated as ‘knight-errant’ or less commonly as ‘cavalier’, ‘adventurer’, ‘soldier of fortune’, and ‘underworld stalwart’. The term ‘wandering force’ refers to the way these men solely traveled the land using force (or influence through association with powerful people) to right the wrongs done to the common people and the monarchy if need be. Youxia did not come from any social class in particular. Various historical documents, wuxia novels, and folktales describe them as being princes, government officials, poets, musicians, physicians, professional soldiers, merchants, and butchers. Some were just as handy with a calligraphy brush as others were with swords and spears.In Cabbalistic Jewish thought, there is a similar tradition, those of the Tzadikim Nistarim, the Hidden Righteous Ones, also called the Lamadvavniks: the "Thirty-Sixers," secret just men who preserve the Jewish people, and through them the world, through their inherent decency and righteousness. These men are so righteous that they preserve the world, and yet they are so inherently humble that they cannot reveal themselves as that would be to commit the sin of pride. In some traditions, in fact, they do not even know who and what they are: if they even realize that they are one of the Thirty Six, God brings them to heaven and replaces them with another, to preserve them from pride.
According to Dr. James J.Y. Liu (1926–1986), a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Stanford University, it was a person's temperament and need for freedom, and not their social status, that caused them to roam the land and help those in need. Dr. Liu believes this is because a very large majority of these knights came from northern China, which borders the territory of "northern nomadic tribes, whose way of life stressed freedom of movement and military virtues." Many knights seem to have come from Hebei and Henan provinces. A large majority of the characters from the Water Margin, which is considered one of China's best examples of knight-errant literature, come from these provinces. One good example of knight-errant poetry is The Swordsman by Jia Dao:
For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?
According to Dr. Liu, Jia’s poem "seems...to sum up the spirit of knight-errantry in four lines. At the same time, one can also take it as a reflection of the desire of all those who have prepared themselves for years to put their abilities to the test for some justice."
It is an echo of this tradition that the commission at Yad Vashem commemorates those of the Nations who helped the Jewish people in peril during the Holocaust, awarding certain individuals as Righteous Persons Among The Nations. (You will read the stories of some of these individuals herein.)
One of my dearest friends, a convert to the Jewish faith, explained to me the metaphor of the Tikkun Olam, mending-of-the-world: that it is the task of the righteous man to make pottery, and to make more pottery than he breaks.
And of course Christianity has its own long tradition of doing good in anonymity. For a hundred generations or more various orders of women have taken to the habit, abandoning their old names and their families while devoting themselves to teaching, nursing and healing of the sick. In the same way, men have devoted themselves to preserving knowledge, culture and history in monasteries. Priests have heard the words of the dying and provided both hope and healing to those who suffer.
Missionaries like Cyril and Methodious to Dr. David Livingston, to the more recent Dr. Albert Schweitzer, have gone forth to remote places at great personal risk to bring the light of both civilization and of Christ where it never before had been known. Some two miles from my office stands a church in memory of one such, Isaac Jogues, who with a companion was killed as a sorcerer for his efforts. These too were of the Tattered Remnant.
Often the Tattered Remnant act knowing the strategic futility of what they do. This is illustrated in the famous Parable of the Starfish. In it, a little boy walks a beach where a million starfish have been thrown ashore by a storm. He wanders up and down the shore, throwing random starfish back in the water. An old man, observing, asks: "Son, why do you do that? There are millions of them. You can't possibly make a difference. It doesn't matter." The boy holds up a starfish and says, "It matters to this one," and throws it back into the sea.
Author Peggy Noonan has also touched on the concept of the Tattered Remnant in her writings. First and foremost of course is her felicitous phrase 'A Thousand Points of Light,' taken perhaps from C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, and used by George H.W. Bush in his 1989 inaugural address:
I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.However, this is of course a bit suspect, as we have a political figure using the concept for political ends, which might well violate the concept of the hidden nature of the Tattered Remnant. But this is not the only place where she makes use of the concept (if not the exact phrase).
In an essay entitled "There Is No Time, There Will Be Time," first published in Forbes ASAP, November 30, 1998, that I regard as her most prophetic and brilliant work, she spoke of her feeling that the old world–those happy days we now think of as "September Tenth"–was coming to an end. There is much in that essay and I strongly urge you to read the entire thing, for it is possibly the most purely prophetic warning of 9/11 ever written. However, there is one section toward the end of the essay where she writes of those she previously called her Thousand Points of Light--that is, the Tattered Remnant, in the sense I am thinking:
I once talked to a man who had a friend who'd done something that took his breath away. She was single, middle-aged and middle class, and wanted to find a child to love. She searched the orphanages of South America and took the child who was in the most trouble, sick and emotionally unwell. She took the little girl home and loved her hard, and in time the little girl grew and became strong, became in fact the kind of person who could and did help others. Twelve years later, at the girl's high school graduation, she won the award for best all-around student. She played the piano for the recessional. Now she's at college.That adoptive mother was surely one of the Tattered Remnant.
The man's eyes grew moist. He had just been to the graduation. "These are the things that stay God's hand," he told me. I didn't know what that meant. He explained: These are the things that keep God from letting us kill us all.
And this book is about people like her.
NOTE TO THE READER:
You will find that I often fall into the first person singular when telling the stories you are about to read, injecting in them an occasional personal anecdote or aside (as here: to quote one of my favorite bad movies, The Knight's Tale, "I'm a writer! I give the truth SCOPE!"). You may also find that I engage in, shall we say, certain very minor literary embellishments as I tell these tales. I've tried to make each of these essays as historically accurate as possible. But these stories are not strictly historical accounts. I do claim the right, by way of my ancient Irish ancestors, to invoke the privilege of the bearer-of-memory, the seanchaidhe, to tell these stories my way.