Gabby Siefert is a management consultant, writer, and researcher who helps Fortune 500 companies and non-profits thrive and grow. She is a regular contributor to the Heromakers Movement. You can find Gabby on IG here.
On August 9, 1943, a 36-year-old man died in a German prison.
His death was met with little fanfare. In fact, few would come to know of him until over a century later when his name—plucked from millions—would be unearthed from the ash heap of historical memory.
When Franz Jaegerstatter refused to serve as a contributor to the Nazi war engine, he could have no idea that he would later be beatified by the Catholic church in 2007. He couldn’t have predicted that his story would be discovered by renowned director Terrence Malick, made into a film, and released to audiences in 2019.
The title of Malick’s masterpiece? ‘A Hidden Life.’
At the end of the film, Malick chose a quote from the novel Middlemarch which captures, in essence, the film’s thesis:
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
The notion of someone’s heroism and sacrifice being met with anonymity rubs up against most modern sensibilities. Jaegarstatter’s story could’ve disappeared into historical oblivion. His tomb too might have remained unvisited.
This begs the question: Who does history remember, really? And what power do heroes, heroines, and heromakers have over the telling of their stories?
Who tells our stories
The musical Hamilton took theatres by storm upon its release in 2015. Lin Manuel Miranda’s retelling of the American revolution and the events that transpired in years after is just as brilliant as it is beautiful to watch.
Throughout the musical, the concept of one’s ‘story’ or ‘legacy’ shows up time and time again. The song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” opens up with the following lines:
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
This message, though sung by actors wearing Revolution era-clothing, is incredibly poignant. Neither Alexander Hamilton nor Franz Jaegerstatter nor anyone else has the power to dictate the posthumous re-telling of their life legacy. We live, we die, and we don’t get to tell our own stories.
Interestingly enough, research has shown that it’s not just positive legacies we care most about—meaning, the ability to leave the world in a better place than we found it. Many are in fact even more motivated by fear of the opposite; a 2010 study revealed that participants were “more concerned with their lasting impact on future generations when thinking about the burdens as opposed to the benefits left to them.”
Many of us find ourselves staggering around, nervously wondering whether or not history will remember us poorly. Or perhaps—not even remember us at all. Research, in fact, has shown that people are generally forgotten within two generations.
It’s a sobering thought.
Stories that are never told
Imagine a world where Malick never picked up Franz Jagerstatter’s story. Or Miranda never thought to spend seven years of his life writing the masterpiece that brought Alexander Hamilton back to life.
Let’s take things a step further.
Think, for just a moment, about the thousands (and perhaps maybe even millions) of men and women whose stories haven’t been documented. Brave people who fought opposition, suffered greatly, and impacted their families and communities in mighty ways.
These truly hidden lives are just as Eliot’s quote would have us understand them to be: completely unhistoric:
After some consideration, it seems obvious that most of the acts of kindness we cherish are unceremonious and ordinary. They require no special degree, access to capital, or excess of intellectual or emotional capacity.
It’s quite baffling. Despite living in a culture that believes the most influential among us reside in halls of fame, the impactful people in the examples listed above never needed a gold medal to love others. Going unheard of and unsung, most of our world’s bravest souls lived (nay, live – present tense) what most would say are ‘average’ or ‘everyday’ lives in service of their families, neighborhoods, faith communities, and countries.
The teachers, grocers, doctors, and parents that we love aren’t impactful in spite of their ordinary lives– they’re impactful because of them—because no life well lived is ordinary in any sense.
It’s time to change the script. Being a heromaker isn’t about curating a picture-perfect, historically-relevant life legacy—it’s about stewarding the tasks before us with integrity and courage, even if they happen in unseen places.
Never question love’s impact
But even if we do accept that heroism makes its home in what appear to be small and unseen places, most of us might still believe that the little things we do–even the little things our neighbors do–won’t amount to much.
I wonder if, while sitting in a German prison cell, Franz Jaegarstatter wondered the same. Throughout the film, audiences watched as his friends and countrymen taunted his efforts, threatening him with what we all fear most: hard work gone wasted.
In one scene, a judge confronted Jaegarstatter with his own insignificance:
Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before. You’ll vanish.
All of us, in the monotony of everyday life, might be tempted to second guess our impact on small circles of family members, friends, and neighbors.
Over time, we might think thoughts like Jaegerstatter, wondering if faithfulness in the little things really adds up in the end. Jaegerstatter would ultimately lose his life in conscientious objection of Hitler and his tyrannous reign over Europe. What would have happened if he, and others like him, listened to the voice that called their ‘little’ sacrifices into question?
Hear this: love is never a waste.
And a world without men and women willing to count all as loss for the sake of honoring others is not a world where justice—the kind that defeats dictators and protects the vulnerable—would ever be possible.
In leaning into these truths, we not only give ourselves the freedom to live life to the fullest, but we also pay homage to the many stories of people all over the world living well under the radar.
Put simply, we’re able to see beauty where others simply can’t.
Let us then open our eyes and be hearers and tellers of remarkable stories—stories of heroism in its best, and most ordinary, moments.