James Foley was one of us. One of millions of largely unknown people doing good things. Few knew Foley until he was murdered two weeks ago by Syrian terrorists seeking revenge and ransom. Now few will forget him. Still, he was just one of us. His life holds lessons for us. About how we are—and how we can be more like---the hero he was.
Foley worked as a freelance photojournalist. An often obscure, unglamorous, even gritty career. He felt so drawn to the work that he returned to study it in his thirties. Just one of thousands of mid-career college students seeking new skills and credentials. Perhaps to keep up with changing culture, or to tap into personal passions. Maybe to balance in more meaning and purpose.
He felt a call to an unseen but astonishingly real world. Where people, in the course of their everyday lives, face unbidden terrorism and brutal inhumanities. He wanted his work to inform us about them, of their plight. Now we know him.
Yes, he made sacrifices. He knew the risks—even beyond the obvious. The pay wouldn’t be great. His travels would complicate relationships. What he got in return fed his spirit, soul, sense of purpose, his most essential and unique Self.
Other ‘real people’ make sacrifices, too. Women and men, like Foley, put off starting families to pursue work they feel they must do. Parents pass on the plum job to stay home with the children. Soldiers leave home for overseas deployments.Children come home from adult lives to support aging parents. Personal aides and homecare workers pass up tidy jobs to support shut-ins and others who struggle. Community volunteers show up for no pay to do important work in endless ways. Students pursue in degrees in teaching, social work, nursing—and journalism—for jobs they know will change lives, but for pay that will barely cover college loans.
I imagine James Foley would say he was just like one of them.
Yet, he’s a hero. Though his internationally witnessed assasination wasmeant to promote the cause and celebrity of an evil cohort of terrorists, it inadvertently illuminated what Foley dedicated his career to revealing. A real person, in the course of doing his job, faced with unbidden terrorism and inhuman brutality. Like so many of the people his lens captured. Those he wanted us to see as other ‘real people’ like ourselves. Only now it was him we saw.
Therein lies the power of James Foley's story:
How can we see in his 'real people' heroism what we, too, could do?
Not by putting ourselves in harm’s way. But by understanding and intentionally engaging we do as critically important to our world--and others. By orienting efforts around our expressed ethic—and assertively enacting it, every day. By seeing, seeking and engaging our unique capacities, the contexts we chose or simply are ‘in,’ and that sense of our most unique Self.
James Foley showed us. That influence and leadership don’t require thousands of followers, a public podium, bully pulpit or even the support of a community or set cohort of colleagues. That any of us, anywhere, anytime can make a real difference. Here’s how:
Let Your Life Inform and Engage Your Vision. Foley followed his conscience, not the path others might have thought better, safer or more popular. His vision--to change the world through the lens of his camera--was clear. Which helped him stayed focused on acheiving it and helped him articulate it better to others, too.
What does your conscience speak to you when you’re really in tune to it?
How can you articulate and act on what your conscience guides you to do?
Express Your Power with Action, Not Talk. Foley invested his emotions in global injustices in the impacts of war for all to see. He didn’t wait for the right job or connection to get him where he wanted. But he did seek the best available advisers and colleagues he could find, to propel his efforts to higher levels of impact. Then applied his abilities directly in the thick of the problem, with the real people experiencing it.
Are you talking about your power, or are you showing it with what you achieve?
Are you waiting for the right chance rather than ‘just doing’?
Communicate Your Mission Everywhere You Can. Foley wasn’t a famous photojournalist. As a freelancer, his work wasn’t showcased in ways it might get a bigger, better audience. Still, he promoted it as far and wide as he could through the networks and channels he knew and developed.
Why hide this mission you’re on? Wouldn’t it be better to share it with others?
What if they’d like to join you? How would you know?
Connect with Real Passions—not Popularity Contests. Change rarely happens in comfortable places. Passion can seem either too quaint, or conversely, to unque for such conformity-requiring circles. But touches deeper emotions that can powerfully propel transformative, sustained good. Foley didn’t focus on influencing political pundits, arcane policy or the polite periphery (where most of what's produced is just talking and tsk-tsking).
How can you connect your passion with others who share the same?
How can your passions fuel and sustain you when the going gets tough?
The answers can’t be found without action. Which, I’d imagine, is the legacy James Foley would most like to leave. Let’s honor it by following his lead.
It's time we real people get to the real work of doing good.