Eowyn: My Lord! Aragorn! I am to be sent with the women into the caves.
Aragorn: That is an honorable charge.
Eowyn: To mind the children, to find food and bedding when the men return. What renown is there in that?
Aragorn: My Lady, there may come a time for valor without renown. Who then will your people look to in the last defense?
There are people doing work in Lebanon that you will never hear about. There are people teaching students in rough neighborhoods in Chicago and vaccinating children in Congo and counseling traumatized middle-aged refugees.
I’ve met some of these folks, and I think they could be famous.
They would fit well on the cover of TIME, or at least on the local news. But probably that will never happen, and they probably wouldn’t like it if it did.
Mother Theresa never asked to be famous. She didn’t ask to be the face of charity or the symbol of selfless humanitarianism. She didn’t ask to be recognized in airports. God chose that for her.
He doesn’t want most of us to be famous. He wants us to do humble dirty work. He wants us to pray with the door closed.
Movements for a society’s political and spiritual change need anonymous activists and small-time bloggers. We can’t all be Martin Luther King Jr. But we can all be marchers, writers, doers.
Some people glorify humanitarian aid work, politics, journalism. I probably used to be one of those people, and maybe that’s why I wanted to get into these things in the first place. I don’t glorify them anymore. It’s all work. No better or worse than a lot of other paths—just professions where you try to help people and make the world better, like a million others. That kind of work—the helping kind—is not unique. Most of us, I think, want our jobs to be helpful and world-improving.
We need those people today to step into relief work and to take office and to do good investigative reporting. If the servant-hearted people of integrity don’t fill those gaps, egos will.
Anyway, I’m young. What about the people who have been going into the same ramshackle office in the dusty part of town for the last thirty years? What about those who tried, but government regulation or war or family issues got in the way? We’ll never know them. They are not on the front line, not atop the wall. They are in the cave of Helm’s Deep.
We’ll never know them. Except maybe in the last defense.
The cavern of Helm’s Deep, well behind the Deeping Wall, well below the Keep, is where humble servants go. Is where silent workers work.
The cavern of the valorous is not on television. It’s not on front pages. It’s not on stages. It’s not at the front of marches. And it might not even be on the internet.
Maybe if I was humbler I’d be silent more. Listening, after all, is a good start on humility. But I’m not sure that acts of service, that keeping your left hand hidden from your right, that doing one’s best to be selfless, requires complete silence (or maybe I just wish that). Sometimes you have to speak up—just wait until the time is right.
Wait for the last defense.
And if the last defense never comes, if you never get to be the hero, all the better. You did the secret thankless work. You were faithful, you were ready, even if your number was never drawn.
I once heard a statistic that during the decisive Gettysburg battle of Pickett’s Charge, the average lifespan of a flag-bearer once the attack began was eight seconds. To carry the colors was one of the greatest honors of soldiering. It was also one of the greatest dangers. It was a duty of high honor and little renown. After all, how many standard-bearers can we name?
The glory goes to generals, not the men hoisting the flag or the boys playing the bugle call. And yet, those were the ones who traded their rifles for what perhaps proved greater instruments of resistance and faithfulness.
So too we carry the tools of seemingly lesser impact. We carry flowers and notebooks and laptops, when surely we’d have more impact with megaphones and television cameras. The pen is mightier than the sword, but in its own way.
We do not yet know what will be the importance of pens in the last defense.
Surely, in an age of frightening politics, wars and refugees, deteriorating values and schismatic creeds, and unending confusion between what is true and beautiful and what is not, the pen-wielders will have their day—though their instruments don’t shine as brightly in the sunlight.
Maybe their faces stay hidden. Maybe their pens don’t gleam. That is all okay. The renown can go.
But may the lowly prove their valor. May all their words be true.