Heroism and All Hallow’s Eve

By Brenda Kay Zylstra

Trick or treat

Do I look sweet?

Dressed kinda like a lady of the street

Somewhere during the hazy high school years, Halloween ceases to be a celebration of candy exuberance and transforms into an excuse to dress outlandishly while imbibing generous amounts of a different sort of treat. Butterfingers are out; butterscotch schnapps is in, or for the hardcore, just plain scotch. With the fairer sex especially, this is a prime opportunity to dress in the tradition of Julia Roberts’ character from “Pretty Woman.” Forget candy corn; how can I base a costume around those knee-high black boots in my closet?

And although Oct. 31 may have become a shallow pursuit of hedonistic revelry (not that I’m anti-Halloween; those black boots weren’t hypothetical, but let’s call a spade a spade), the day can be redeemed yet. Or should I say reformed?

Four-hundred and ninety years ago today, German monk Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg as a public criticism of certain Roman Catholic doctrines. Luther stood up to the most powerful entity of his day and proclaimed the truth as he saw it, sparking the Reformation and irreversibly altering the trajectory of Christianity. As a result, he faced excommunication and exile. Regardless of your religious beliefs, Luther is a man to be admired, and the bold stand he took against the Roman Catholic Church is as relevant a lesson now as it was then.

Luther was able to challenge the church because of his education. Simply put, he could read the most important document of his time, the Bible, when most of those who believed in it could not. Luther had neither money nor power nor fame, but he masterfully wielded what agency he did have, demanding attention and change. This is the pragmatic side of heroism, not just standing up for that in which you believe, but using every tool at your behest to improve the quality of the world in which we live.

Heroism comes in ways big and small. About a year ago Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered for reporting on Chechnya in a way that Putin’s Russia did not appreciate. Two years before that, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (great-nephew of the painter) was shot eight times, nearly decapitated, stabbed twice and left with a 5-page note knifed into his torso by a self-identified jihadist. The catalyst was Van Gogh’s piece “Submission,” a 10-minute film about women in Islam. Politkovskaya and Van Gogh refused to back down despite the worst penalties the world has to offer and they used what power they had to shed light on truth.

It doesn’t take much to be a good citizen of the world, just a thoughtful allocation of your resources. My sister works 12-hour days as a neonatal intensive care nurse, caring for those tiny creatures, so young and already fighting against so much. She has seen more babies dead than most of us have alive. But still, every time an infant dies in her unit, she takes the time to send a sympathy card to the grieving parents. It’s not much in the total scale but it’s beautiful.

The blessings given to each of us must be accounted for and matched with responsibility and response. The reason someone like Paris Hilton is so disgusting is less because she’s stupid or flighty or self-absorbed and more about the fact that she’s had every opportunity in the world to make a difference, to become a person who changes the world for the better, and if anything has made the world worse, shallower, more stupid.

If you attend this college, you are already wealthier and better educated than most of the world. You have potential and power. So tonight, get dressed up and go crazy. But tomorrow, go to class and improve yourself so you can improve your world.