A few days before he died, Heather saw footage of John Lewis in “Eyes on the Prize” and couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“He looks so young,” she said in amazement.
A simple thing. But powerfully true. There on the screen was the young Freedom Rider, protester, orator and organizer. A face so different from the Georgia congressman so many of us had gotten used to, the man who had represented his district for so long that no one would have been surprised to see him turn up in “Hamilton” – as one of the characters.
Now all the faces belong to the past.
What face will we see?
That’s not as simple a question as it sounds. Like many people in many places, America loves its heroes. But we love them best when they’re safely distant. A Founding Father who belongs to a different time. A martyr cut down at the height of his glory. Crusaders and agitators whose messages can be carefully shaped the way we want to hear them, rather than have them inconveniently speak for themselves.
Lewis received an honor that many fighters for justice never claimed. He got to grow old. And so, for years and years, he got to remain a person rather than an image. Someone who could inspire people or irritate them, make them proud or make them angry.
The living get to do that.
They get to challenge us.
They get to embarrass us.
They even get to shame us.
Most of all, they get to remind us that they’re people. Not saints and angels from another realm. Not heroes conveniently written into a Hollywood script. But people like you and me.
And that can be the most humbling lesson of all.
Because if someone like you and me can do so much and stand for so long, it suggests that we could do it, too.
And then we have to ask ourselves why not.
For some of us, true, it’s a matter of opportunity. If you’re sweating and straining just to find $5 for a cheap dinner, simple survival looms much larger than leaving any sort of mark or legacy on the world. But for many of us – most of us – the answer is more unsettling.
For most of us, it comes down to choices. Often ordinary choices, that collectively have an extraordinary impact in what we do or what we ignore.
Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a piece about a photograph I’d found in a World War II history. It showed German soldiers throwing snowballs at each other in a train yard. Replace the uniforms with civilian clothing and they could have been anyone’s sons and brothers, taking joy in a winter’s day.
Ordinary men. Capable of laughter. Capable of silliness. And fighting for one of the most evil regimes in history.
Not monsters, safely separated from the human race. But people. Like us.
We can be our monsters. We can be our heroes. These are roles of our making, born of our choices.
Who will we choose to be?
John Lewis has left now, his choices made. Only his example remains behind. Will we remember a man, in all his complexities and contradictions, who left a mark and a job to be carried on? Or will we just remember a face from a documentary, a name from another time, a message from an old battle that surely has nothing to do with us?
Will we remember that we share the same story and the same potential?
Will we remember that our choices matter? And make them?
John Lewis’s face belongs to the past now. It’s time again to look at our own.
What will we see?