The famous lone protester at Tienanmen Square, 1989
What is the most courageous thing you ever did? In looking back on my life I’m left to conclude that I’ve never done anything very courageous. Compared to most of the people on this planet, I’ve had a pretty easy and problem-free life. I’ve struggled with mild-to-moderate depression, the ‘noonday demon’, for most of my life, but I know people who have battled with much darker demons than mine, relentlessly, life-long, with the knowledge that they’re in a battle that never ends and is never really won. I know people who have faced gut-wrenching losses and reversals in their personal lives, and fought back and forged on valiantly in circumstances that I think would have finished me. I know people who have never faced an easy day in their lives, but who smile bravely and treat others with more kindness and look more optimistically at their lot than I could ever hope to do.

Our admiration for courage, it seems, is one of the few qualities that we all share, regardless of our political views, our philosophies of life, or our culture. Consider this wonderful, remarkable passage from right wingnut blogger Bill Whittle (a guy who seriously believes a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorism):

And in this imperfect, flawed nation of ours, perhaps more than anywhere else on Earth, I think about the courage it takes to be poor, to face that sickening knot of worry and despair that comes with not having the money to pay your bills. For there is no more steady and enduring courage than that of a poor family, especially a single parent, who fights a never-ending battle of brutal hours at miserable pay, of perennially unrealized dreams, and of the desperate, numb agony of disappointed children. For people like that, who force themselves to work two jobs while we sleep, to avoid the temptations of crime and dependency while surrounded by luxury and wealth the likes of which man has never knownÖwell, that is dogged courage of a sublime nature that passes all understanding.

There are some aw-shucks types that would say that such courage is in all of us, and just gets exercised in some more than others because of the circumstances of life, but I’m not so sure. I handle even momentary stress and adversity so badly that the thought of facing it every day, relentlessly, with no reasonable hope of it ever ending, is just too overwhelming for me to contemplate. I would end my life, I would go insane and strike out, I would just curl up into a ball and give up, if I had to face that. I’m not that courageous.

The rationalist in me makes me want to ask why. Why do some people, knowledgably and coherently, face enormous risks and hardships and Do It or Die? I don’t think it’s false bravado, the love of cheap thrills, moral strength (as many conservatives do), faith, or superior character. I don’t think it’s even as pat or simple as the ability to face and come to grips with your fears.

The closest I can come to an answer, one that works for all political, cultural and philosophical persuasions, is love. If you love life, others, your world, enough, perhaps you can summon up the courage to do anything. If you’re a conservative and love your country and its values enough, perhaps that gives you the courage to go to war for your country and your beliefs, risking your safety and life every moment of every day. If you’re a liberal and love this planet and every living creature on it enough, perhaps that gives you the courage to give up everything and to devote your life (and, under the Patriot Act, risk your freedom and life) to fight the awesome powers of corporatism to a standstill, day after day.

I don’t have that courage, and maybe that means I don’t love enough, I don’t care enough. I sit here at my computer telling the world what I believe and encouraging them to take action, but I don’t do anything substantive myself to make the world better. It doesn’t take courage to write essays, or even novels (not in this part of the world, anyway). Those of us that just write, and read, and talk, but take no risks, give nothing of ourselves except perhaps money or a bit of spare time for charitable or political or activist causes, we’re not showing courage. While conservatives hide behind their morality (“I couldn’t do anything like that, if something happened to me, what would my family do?”), liberals hide behind their rationality (“It wouldn’t do any good, one person wouldn’t make a difference anyway”). It’s cowardly, I’m cowardly. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that it’s now or never, that there is no time to lose, and we’d throw caution to the wind, drop everything we are doing, give up everything, and follow our hearts, our minds, our instincts, our dreams.

I’m still sitting here. I guess that means I don’t love enough, care enough. There are hundreds of millions of animals suffering unspeakable cruelty right now in factory farms and I’m still sitting here. The women of Darfur are being gang raped and the men are being slaughtered right now, and I’m still sitting here. The planet’s last old-stand forests are being felled or burned to the ground, the whales and fish are choking to death on toxins in our water, millions of children are suffering from asthma and painful, fatal diseases caused by the exhaust from power stations and cars, and I’m still sitting here. Massive famine is breaking out in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan and I’m still sitting here. Every species of life on our planet is threatened with extinction because of human political and economic activity, and it’s getting worse, and I’m still sitting here.

What the hell is wrong with us? Don’t we care enough? Don’t we love enough? Have we been so cowed by fear and brainwashing that we are paralyzed, unable to act? If courage is in all of us, why, at this crucial time in the history of our countries, our world, are so few of us doing anything to make it better? How can we just let it happen? Will we have to wait until we have nothing left to lose?

I’m ashamed of myself.

I’m still sitting here.

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14 Responses to COURAGE

  1. Congratulations DAVE:The best post you have written, it makes me think a

  2. Myke says:

    Courageous writing.

  3. Don Dwiggins says:

    Well expressed, and I know the feeling from personal experience. As usual, some top-of-the-head comments:I think there’s such a thing as “outrage overload”; when you start thinking of all the wrongs in this world that need righting, you can become overwhelmed (as expressed in your 4th-from-last paragraph).I think that in some cases, courage comes from considering “what’s the alternative?”. If just letting go, ceasing to struggle, isn’t acceptable, one continues to struggle, even against all odds. (Sometimes I phrase this as “You got something better to do?”)Here’s a thought that might help: who are the local people of courage where you are? Do you have the courage to learn about them, to visit them, to write about what they do and how they think and feel? Could you start or become part of a network (a natural enterprise) that puts them in contact with each other, and/or with people who could provide resources they could use? Maybe you’d find a good starting place at yeah — speaking as a fellow infojunkie: limit the amount of time you spend at the computer per day. If nothing else, work in the garden, take the dogs for a walk, take as a goal each week to talk (in person — email, IM, skype don’t count) to someone you’ve never talked to before, at least enough to know a little bit about them. (I’m writing this for myself as well; having been unemployed for over a year, and recently decided to accept semi-retirement, I’m well aware how your “circle of communication” can shrink. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, to some extent, and I’d really like to spend time face-to-face, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as e-courage. 8^)

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Well, personally I’m very glad that you at least share what you are thinking, feeling, observing and know with other people, in the ways that you do. You have a big, agile and caring mind and heart (hmm… don’t know about the agility of your heart), and I’m sure that there are others beside me that appreciate very much that you have at least had the courage to share yourself and your gifts.

  5. rex says:

    Even the best post, the most courageous writing, saves not a single life, not a single little pond somewhere, stops no war, no rape, no hunger, etc.Why mollify. Maybe being sick to one’s stomach in the face of honestly desperate conditions will lead to action. I admit to fascination, too, as to why we don’t do anything.

  6. David Fono says:

    How about this: suffering has always existed, in equal or greater quantities. Aside from the environmental overload which we are only now hurtling ourselves towards, a shitty world is nothing new. We just know about all, now, all the time. Eh?It seems rather arrogant to me to say that, suddenly, “it’s now or never”. It’s always now or never. Yet the world trucks on, and it gets a little better, or a little worse. I think we fundamentally realize this (or at least we trick ourselves into believing it), and that makes it difficult to motivate. Why jump up and get in the way of the inexorable plodding-along of humanity? When you wake up tomorrow morning, things will continue to be pretty much the same as they are now.Will they? Well, at least for another hundred years or two, I think. For the time being, I think that activism-through-small-measures and activism-through-lifestyle are valid and sustainable strategies. One of my fundamental maxims is that any philosophy worth anything about anything has to take into account the inevitable weakness of the human. It’s pointless to bemoan it — we are who we are, and as long as we don’t revel in our sloth and gluttony, as long as we do TRY, it seems unfair and unrealistic to complain. I would imagine that it would be very easy to be courageous if you found yourself in dire straits; how many “heros” would do anything remarkable if they found themselves well-adjusted and well-provided-for? How many would actually step outside themselves and fight for the rest of the world?

  7. Mike says:

    Dave, don’t underestimate the survival instinct. I daresay that most people who read you are not engaged in a daily struggle for survival.I’m certainly not. Currently I’m self-employed and find I can maintain my existance via 10-20 billable hours a week. I fritter away lots of time reading political blogs. If Kerry wins, I could see a mini-boom occur as folks are freed from the day to day concerns of living in a fascist environment.

  8. Good call on the challenges of courage!Please peruse the PRESS RELEASE and contents of the website at http://www.earthmanifesto.comI strongly believe that we can and must act to better the world, and that the Earth Manifesto contains the seeds of the Revolution that will come this century, whether proactively chosen or by default. Tiffany Twain

  9. gbreez says:

    I don’t understand why, either. Perhaps it is due to resistance to change, to motion, to overcoming inertia so apparently common to the human condition. Mouse-like, I have to screw up my courage to put a Kerry/Edwards sign on my property (I am in a small town which seems to sport only Bush/Cheney signs), wear a Kerry button, and sport a Kerry bumper sticker on the car. I have to push myself to speak to anyone, at all, and even harder to talk about the need for change. I have no money, no job, no health care and I am getting old. There are many many times when I wish to curl up in a ball and go to the big sleep. Have not managed it yet. It would hurt my son and sister if I did. Guess that keeps me here. That and the joy (love) of greeting the day outside my door…it stills seems beautiful to me, despite the pain and horror happening beyond my sight. Good post. Good question. I hope we figure out how to anwser it and move on to real change. Keep trying. I will, too.

  10. shari says:

    Always, Dave, a courageous post. Don’t know why but what you wrote reminded of the story Mole Music by David McPhail. Wrote about it once but sometimes its really hard to know how you are impacting others. And Dave, you surely are impacting those of us who read your blog and find inspiration.

  11. Uccella says:

    I don’t mean this in a specific religious sense but I do think there is inestimable value in ‘bearing witness’ and, in doing so, very possibly strenghthening the resolve of those who may be a position to take action. The photo for instance. The action of the young man was remarkable but its enduring power is dependent on individuals doing something much less dramatic, simply posting or reprinting the photo.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    To all: Thanks for your ideas, links and encouragement. Don, you’re right about the importance of models and examples: We live in an age where courage is not really valued or exemplified. Rex: Absolutely right. No excuses. Tiffany: Thanks for the links to your, and Hawken’s work — lots of ideas here. Shari: James Taylor wrote a song about moles a few years ago, and I’m guessing it was inspired by the book you mention.

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Uccella: Images, as we learned from Abu Ghraib, have enormous power to affect human emotion and bring about change — perhaps they also have the power to make us more courageous.

  14. You’re absolutely right Dave! And I agree, some of us do have “latent” courage, and it just takes the right combination of hard knocks by life to bring it out in us to full expression. I think your writing shows this within you and look forward to seeing how you turn it around.

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