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.