Of Heroes and Ordinary Men

As of late, I’ve been reading a book called Ordinary Men. It’s a recount of German police battalion 101; a documentation of the men who served as part of Nazi Germany’s Order Police during the Second World War. The policemen, as cataloged by author Christopher Browning, are given an assignment on the morning of July 13, 1942 that would change their lives forever. And subsequently, the lives of every Jewish man, woman, and child living in the ghetto of Jozefow. Though only police officers, the battalion is handed down orders to “liquidate” the entire ghetto and thus, murder every single Jewish person – amounting somewhere in the thousands – that resided within. As you might suspect, the orders are carried out in full. But, not without consequence. In the days and years that follow, the members of Battalion 101 experience extreme regret, bitterness, and entanglement of their very souls. It’s a chilling read and a grim reminder of how quickly things can devolve into madness.

What’s more, the book chronicles how so many of these average police officers were given a choice: to carry out their orders or to simply “walk out.” The majority of them did not choose the latter. And though some did outright, a vast majority of officers participated. The details of which I will leave for those who wish to read the book themselves.

As a writer of fiction, I am in the business of creating stories. Stories that not only tickle the imagination, but project images and ideals of I would constitute as heroic. For without heroism, few protagonists are memorable.

And yet, when it comes to real life, the heroes we find in story are remarkably absent. Bullies surround a kid at school and no one intervenes. An employee knowingly removes money from the company bank account and those in the know turn a blind eye. If confronted with these situations ourselves, we’d all like to believe we’d rise to the occasion. That we’d mirror the heroes of our favorite fantasy or fiction and become the star of our circumstances. However, as I’m reading through Ordinary Men, it’s easy to see that we aren’t always as virtuous as we tend to think, nor are we as brave as we’d choose to believe. External forces – coupled by our own internal ones – drive us to self-preserve, to retain self-interest, and forego the sacrifice that might be necessary to simply do what is good and just.

But, what is good and just? Writers have been tackling what is right and what is wrong since the beginning of time. And the more specific and morally gripping the scenario, the cloudier our answer tends to become. Yet by continually engaging in stories that challenge our thinking on these matters, we continue to cultivate the best parts of ourselves: the traits most associated with what is admirable and what is desirable. And that’s worth writing about.

For more on that topic, check out my latest podcast We All Wish We Could Be The Hero.

The Hashtag Before the Tweet

I’m borrowing an old expression and updating it. I’m sure many are familiar with this old cliche’: “pulling the cart before the horse.” Essentially, it means to start something without possessing the proper tools first. Packing your bags but lacking the destination. Trying to rock the boat but having no boat. So on and so forth. To a generation that thrives on immediacy and cyber interaction, “the hashtag before the tweet” has some relevance, I feel. For example, nobody puts the hashtag before their status update. In social media land, that’s a huge ‘no-no’. Ask any teenager with Twitter or millennial with social media experience and they’ll tell you the same. Sounds trivial, but it’s one of the few online rules most social media moguls follow.

And hey, it works. Nobody does this unless they want people to “unfollow” them. This isn’t a dare; it’s simply a fact. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

For example, here’s the proper use of a “#,”

“I was driving to the store the other day when I saw a person run out in front of a car.” #peoplearereckless

Here, you have an update; you have a story; and lastly, you have the hashtag search piece connected at the end. Now compare the above with this:

#peoplearereckless “I was driving to the store the other day when I saw a person run out in front of a car.”

See the difference? Better yet – feel the difference? If you’re going to tell people something interesting, entertaining, or educational, then you need to have a hook. You need to lead in with the story. You don’t cut straight to the conclusion, aka your hashtag. People don’t respond well to that. Where’s the tension? Where’s the excitement? In a tweet, it might be hard to imagine any “tension” or “excitement” happening, but telling a story before its conclusion is the most practical rule of thumb to abide by. Don’t tell me that #peoplearereckless. Instead, show me that #peoplearereckless. And do so with a story first.

So why bring this up? Well, it’s a place most writers find themselves in. That “hashtag before the tweet” stage. Few things measure up to a spanking new idea – one that’s worth telling or teaching others with. The initial feeling is invigorating, full of life, and full of positive energy. But what immediately follows can be bone-crushing: that overwhelming, intimidating revelation of how much time, energy, and commitment will be required to carry the idea to fruition. And as a writer, you want the conclusion to be there – to have all the pieces in play – so you can cut straight to the end. You’d rather tell than show.

How does anyone know his story is any good? Well, he can tell people all day long about his idea but when the time comes to show it, what does he have to provide for all his ramblings? He must be able to show what he’s been doing all this time or else the idea remains just that: an idea; a hashtag before the tweet, so to speak.

And that’s where I’d prefer not to find myself: hashtagging before the tweeting. Because let’s face it – that’s just annoying. Kind of like pulling the cart before the horse.