What we really need in a leader

By Kathryn Jean Lopez

"Now that we'll have a president who has said, 'I don't have heroes,' I suppose we must all somehow step up and become heroes for one another," writer Wendy Shalit tweeted the day after the election. The mother of three describes herself as an "evangelist for romantic hope and the possibility of innocence."

In a recent conversation, Shalit spoke of a man named Gershon Burd, a father of five who had died in an accident in 2013 and led a "secret life." People knew he was a good guy, but they had no idea, really - even his family. For himself, he would buy used shoes and suits. For others, he would do anything, it turned out. He was gratuitously generous.

In a 2014 reissue of her 1999 book, "A Return to Modesty," Shalit wrote of him: "A stationery store owner in the Old City of Jerusalem gave out free helium balloons to all children on their birthdays ... only because Gershon quietly slipped into the store every month and paid for the balloons. He also paid for plane tickets home, so that other people could visit their sick parents." Shalit asked: "(I)s there anything more extraordinary than a life lived with such sublime modesty?"

When I picked up "A Return to Modesty" again, I read this: "The wheel of maturity is grasped when a person humbles himself to identify with others and stretches himself to become a more giving person."

That's a message that some of the people protesting Donald Trump's election need to hear. I didn't vote for the man, and I have similar feelings as Shalit's about what it says about us that we will have a first lady who described her husband's repulsive language about women - which may or may not have reflected the reality of his approach to sexual conquests - as male "locker room talk."

But the poor choices this election year were not the fault of the candidates but a reflection of ourselves and our politics. I broke open my copy of William Bennett's "The Book of Virtues" - which Shalit also tweeted about in the wake of the election - and noticed that the first virtue is self-discipline. It includes some verse from an unknown author on learning how to conduct conversations: "If you your lips would keep from slips,/Five things observe with care:/Of whom you speak, to whom you speak,/ And how and when and where.

"If you your ears would save from jeers,/These things keep meekly hid:/Myself and I, and mine and my,/And how I do and did."

Countercultural much?

Bennett points to Socrates, who praised temperance in a leader, writing that it's the aim "toward which he ought to direct all the energies both of himself and of the state ... not suffering his lusts to be unrestrained, and in the never-ending desire to satisfy them leading a robber's life. Such a one is the friend neither of God nor man, for he is incapable of communion, and he who is incapable of communion is also incapable of friendship."

Throughout the campaign, people asked me why Trump's recklessness in speech and action matter. I think the quotes above answer that question. But again, he's about to be president, and the bigger issue is ourselves. What do we value, what do we want to value, who are we and who do we want to be? In the Christian tradition, there's a call to be saints, and it is universal. We don't need a saint as president, but we do need one who has heroes other than himself, one who wants to be a hero. That'll take everyone pitching in and nurturing virtues like modesty and humility, like Gershon Burd or so many others whose names will never be well known have done. They're lives to celebrate and emulate.

© 2016, Universal

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