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Heroes

Look for ordinary examples of evil and you’ll find them everywhere.

Look for ordinary examples of goodness and you may well be stumped.

Goodness is no less banal than evil, but clear instances seem harder to find, which is why we turn to literature and movies and myths. Pressed to give an example who would you think of: Superman, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela? When we think about heroes, we think of outsized examples.

Reality, however, never looks like the ideals you have for it.

Any time you move from ideal heroes to real ones you’ll find buck teeth or hesitation or sleeping problems or awkward laughs.

Once that becomes clearer heroes are easier to find.

What are we looking for in a hero? What do Enlightenment Heroes look like? Not superhuman, or martyrs, or saints.

They are people whose minds are at least as engaged as their hearts, whose moral clarity has been won through reflection and on-going struggle.

However hard the times they experience in public and private, they know about joy and how to express it and they maintain a sense of hope, wonder and limit.

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But one example

Change the clothing and she could pass for an unworldly, angular beauty about to enter the social whirl. As it is, Sarah Chayes dresses in the long tunic and flowing pants worn by men in Afghanistan – her home, more or less, since the Taliban fell. In a culture where women are invisible, it was the best solution for a reporter who wanted to stay as near as she could to her sources.

Her book The Punishment of Virtue explains, “What were my choices? I could wear a burqa. Fat chance. I could give up the effort altogether and don Western garb. That would not solve the problem, since there were no more westerners in Chama than there were women. Cargo pants and a parka would draw gawkers to me just the same.” 

In the meantime, she has learned Pashtu, and keeps an AK-47 under her bed.

For years she’d been an NPR reporter with a flat in Paris and an eye for cutting edges that won prizes while getting her in fixes. One, for example, meant her throwing her laptop out a window to keep it away from Serbian police.

September 11, 2001, struck her as a crucial historical moment – like the assignation of the Arch Duke Ferdinand that triggered the First World War. She asked her editor to send her to Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter she was waiting in Quetta with hundreds of other journalists eager to cross the Pakistani border.

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Instincts

Chayes had studied Islamic culture in college when it seemed like a quirk – “just a spirit of contradiction, I guess, when everybody else was doing Europe” – and knew some Arabic.

During an early stint with the Peace Corps in Morocco she had kept the month-long dawn-to dusk fast during Ramadan as a sign of respect for her host culture. As the only journalist in Quetta to do so, she so astonished the Taliban that they took her under their wing.

On the eve of the fall of Afghanistan, they invited her to break the fast with them.

It’s the sort of instinct that led her to avoid the hotel designated for foreigners once she reached Kandahar. Instead seeking lodging with a family in a broken-down graveyard.

And it’s the sort of instinct that introduced her to so many Afghans that she found herself dining with President Karzai’s uncle at the end of her tour.

“The word NGO should be struck from the English language,” said Uncle Aziz of the opportunists he knew ready to ride into the free-for-all. “Wouldn’t you come back and help us?”

Without pausing to consider, Chayes said yes. Not believing in the clash of civilization thesis she had a sense that it was crucial for the U.S. to get Afghanistan right.

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Feild Director

Her initial support for the invasion, which was welcomed by Afghans at the time, faded fast. Instead, Chayes watched as the U.S. – through a mix of ignorance, distraction, and sheer laziness – proceeded to reinstate just those warlords whose behaviour had driven Afghanistan into the Taliban’s arms years before.

As field director for Afghans for Civil Society, she raised money in the U.S. to rebuild houses bombed by U.S. forces, then returned to Kandahar to battle the local warlord over access to stone to do the job. She gathered the village children to help her clear piles of bricks and pushed authorities to build roads and drill wells.

She also read everything she could find about the history of the region, from Person poetry to letters of nineteenth-century British soldiers stationed in Kabul. Committed to building an organisation that offered both policy and practice, she organised groups of local elders, teaching them to state their cases and bringing them the capital to do it. And she mobilized groups of women – some prominent, some illiterate – to debate women’s priorities in her office before they flipped down their burqas to step outside.

The she agitated for the removal of corrupt warlords. Opened a dairy cooperative. And sat on bureaucrats’ tables till they gave her the permits required. Most recently, she founded a soap making business. One way of encouraging local farmers to produce something other than opium.

Australian volunteer Tanya McQueen worked as a Rural Women's Program Adviser in Afghanistan, 2003. Photo: Tanya McQueen, AVI / AusAID

Soap

It’s work that involves everything from bargaining for pomegranate seeds and rose petals on the wholesale market to travel through the U.S. to muster support that ranges from offers of supplies to services to customers. There is, most centrally, the soap-making itself.

“Not everybody can drop their life and move to Kandahar,” she readily grants, but she believes Westerners want to help, if they have clear options to do so.

“I have come to feel that what we offer to people in the West – an opportunity to take part– may be just as meaningful as whatever benefits we bring to Kandahar,” wrote Chayes in a recent article. 

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Balance

Before you meet Chayes, it’s easy to dismiss her interest in soap, and her lack of interest in her own safety, as vaguely romantic and possibly unhealthy. After you’ve heard her, it’s easy to agree with her own description of what moves her.

“This is not about selflessness. For the first time in my life I feel balanced. I don’t feel well in my culture’s model of success.” What are the chances she will succeed?

She’s already worked to find terms that give her disappointment the most sense. The country as a whole, she has come to believe, is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, with tangible symptoms: the inability to bond, plan for the future, or think in collective terms.

“I don’t use the word hope,” she says, “I have determination; hope is almost irrelevant. What’s important is to try – as hard as you can. That means you need to keep yourself open to astonishment and wonder and outrage. Cynicism punctures the energy that leads you to try. It suggests that you know it all, so your reaction is always. Yeah? So what else is new? Once you start saying that, you’ll allow anything to happen.”

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This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.


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