It’s Easy to Be Brave From a Distance

The famous lone protester at Tienanmen Square, 1989
I saw the title of this post on a local veterinarian’s sign today. Apparently it’s from Aesop’s Fables, though I’m not sure which one.

One of my best-received articles was the one I wrote last year on courage. At that time I said that I disbelieved most of the common wisdom about courage: That it’s in all of us, that it’s false bravado, or moral strength, or superior character. I ascribed it instead to love: “If you love life, others, your world, enough, perhaps you can summon up the courage to do anything.” And I agreed with this wonderful quote from right-wing blogger Bill Whittle:

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.

And I wondered aloud why day after day, despite my passionate beliefs about what was wrong with the world and what needed to be done, I sat at the computer, and wrote instead of acting. Did I not love the world, Gaia, and its needlessly suffering people and animals enough?

Since then, I’ve received some solace and, at the same time, a prod, from philosopher John Gray, who has persuaded me that no amount of energy, organization and ingenuity is going to prevent the end of civilization by the end of this century, but has also refocused me on what I can do and should be doing to make things better here and now at the local level, and to create some working models of intentional communities and community-based enterprises and economies that can help those who survive the end of our civilization to live in peace, harmony and comfort.

Supposing you were suddenly blessed with a benefactor who offered you $200,000 per year tax free for the rest of your life. The only condition is that you not accept any money from any other source for doing anything. If you work, it has to be for free. if you gamble or invest, any gains have to be given away. What would you do? Just retire and ‘do no evil’, living a life of ease with loved ones, minimizing your footprint? Write the book you’ve been putting off? Do work for charity — locally? in an inner city or impoverished rural area near you? in a struggling nation? Study and learn and make yourself a better person, and then take it from there?

OK, now I’m going to change the supposition. Now you have instead a one-month sabbatical, $25,000 to spend, and a guarantee that your job or other source of income will be intact once the month is over. Same conditions on other income during that month. Would that change your answer? If so, why?

Back to the first scenario. It’s now a month later. Honestly, have you started yet, or are you still thinking about it, unwinding, “in transition”? What’s holding you back?

Now, just to up the ante, add to both scenarios a $10 million grant that you can spend on any one project, with the proviso that neither you nor any family members can directly personally benefit from the money. What do you spend it on? I’m willing to bet that you make faster progress spending the money than you do changing your lifestyle. If I’m right, why is that?

Here’s my answers to the questions above, and why I think they’re probably close to what most people would do:

WhatToDoI would start by writing my three or four books: First clean up Natural Enterprise, a book about models for establishing your own joyful, socially and environmentally responsible business. Then my novel The Only Life We Know, which tells the story of a model for intentional community. Then the book The Gift Economy, which outlines a model for a new community-based economic system. And finally, perhaps, The Cost of Not Knowing, a book that explains why we choose not to know or act about huge potential dangers.

The reason I would do that is that, if we’re wise, we do things that are at the intersection of what we’re good at, what we love doing, and what’s needed. The market, I think, doesn’t yet know that the world needs the models I outline in my books, so they won’t, right now, pay me for writing them. My ‘benefactor scenario’ would solve that problem for me, moving the writing of these books from intersection 2 to intersection 3 in the chart at right — and ending my procrastination.

Once these were written, I would start working full-time and simultaneously on making AHA! a reality, creating a new Intentional Community, and facilitating the creation of Natural Enterprises by young people — for the same reason: these activities would then be in intersection 3 for me. There are some other things on my Getting Things Done list bit they’re things I’m not good at and would need a lot of time to become good at. Even under this scenario I know these would never get done, though I expect I would spend some time acquainting myself with people who are good at these things.

In the second scenario, with only a month, I fear I would be much less likely to do much different from what I’m doing now. A month isn’t enough time to make a significant change in what we do, if we know we have to go back to former behaviours at the end of it.

The $10 million grant would be easy to part with: It would be simply a matter of deciding whether to finance AHA!, or a new Intentional Community, or a ‘school’ to ‘teach’ Natural Enterprise, or a new animal welfare organization — or all four. In a month, the money would all have been given away.

Why? I believe it is human nature (a) to only change when we have to, and (b) to avoid risk until and unless the current pain is high enough that the fear of changing is less than the anguish of not changing. There have been a number of studies that confirm this to be true for most of us. Lack of money (and the fear of not having enough) are currently holding me back from jumping into my writing and then real model creation, bringing the subjects of my books to fruition in the real world. For me to give up the current comforts of home, routine, and lots of time with family, for a cause, no matter how worthy, will only happen when either my intolerance for the status quo gets much higher, or the (financial) risk of that change gets much lower. In this scenario that financial risk is lowered. And giving away money for something you believe in, when if you do not give it away you lose it, is easy — you have nothing at risk and you do not have to change.

Does that mean I lack courage, for not doing it now, anyway, with no benefactor or safety net? Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. Look at the best-known heroes of history and myth. They fought for what they did because the anguish of not changing was so high and so immediate, that they had no alternative but to be brave. There was no distance between them and the demons they fought and vanquished. There was no choice but to change. They had nothing to lose.

And how about the poor, the ones that live with this anguish every day? They are of course brave, because there is no distance between them and the grinding daily struggle to survive and make a life for themselves and those they love. The fact that they have no choice but to be courageous does not diminish their courage. It simply explains it.

If I lack courage it is perhaps not daring to eliminate the distance between me and the potential sources of anguish that might raise that level of anguish to the point I might do something heroic. If I were to go to Darfur and see how the people there are living, if I were to see first hand how animals in factory farms and laboratories are treated, if I were to witness the day-to-day misery of the poor and suffering living just a few miles away, that might change everything. That would change everything. My risk aversion, or cowardice, prevents me from staring that truth in the face, because I know I would have to do something, anything, now and for the rest of my life, if I really knew what I fear is happening now in our world.

That is my Cost of Not Knowing, and the reason that, for now, I keep my distance. There is no courage in that, but also no shame. I’m merely human, after all.

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8 Responses to It’s Easy to Be Brave From a Distance

  1. Mariella says:

    Maybe i´m the other side of the coin…I can recognize myself in this article too, as a matter of fact, Pueblos de Arena´s school project is the result of my need to choose between working 8 hours a day, earning $200.-/month or risking a

  2. “Does that mean I lack courage, for not doing it now, anyway, with no benefactor or safety net?…There was no choice but to change. They had nothing to lose.”I suppose this echoes my own experience. Once I was nearly bankrupt, going through the worst downturn in the wrong industry, and newly divorced (ah, two unemployed miserable people are cheaper to house than apart ;-)), I suppose I hit what they call bottom. So I had nothing to lose. And that truly was a new lease on life (after one year of grief). (Also read my current post on Point C’s…it’s evocative of my life.)Your post triggers me to write a post this this week on this topic. Had a strange thing happen on my way home Saturday night. Almost ran out of gas on a solitary highway past midnight. No benefactor. No safety net. But I’m giving too much away.I was feeling a bit down today myself since I am so broke and I’m fully committed to a pro bono project(s) I’m working on. Ramen noodles are fine, it’s the rent for a roof over my head that’s the problem. Anyway I read this in a book and it buoyed me again since I’ve witnessed the truth in it:”Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky.” – Ojibawa saying

  3. zach says:

    There was no distance between them and the demons they fought and vanquished. … They had nothing to lose. Isn’t that glorious!! “You look for the battles in the wrong place. The true test of a warrior is not without, it is within.” – Worf, StarTrek TNG.

  4. Martin-Eric says:

    Given a year, I would actually go and meet all the fine folks I have encountered in the digital universe over the years and use that 10 million to help each one realize some of those great projects we’ve been discussing over the years. Given a month, I would do the same, but obviously have to prioritize and select who I have time to meet and actually produce something usefull within such a short amount of time. The projects I have in mind mostly have to do with giving groups of talented people a roof and equipment to finally create the self-sustained, open and collaborative environment we need to be creative, happy, productive and united. As I mentioned last week during my lecture at the University of Tartu (Estonia), far too many people in the western world can barely make ends meet, even with both spouses working, simply because the consumer society is draining people off their hard-earned money, which prevents them from acquiring a house upon which to build and secure their life. Far too many people spend their entire life in perpetual insecurity, not knowing if they will still have a roof over their head and food on the table in the near future, which paralyzes their mind and saps the energies they would rather direct at more creative and more meaningful things. One strategy the former Communist countries could use to attract creative minds with cultural sensitivity is to emphasize the cheapness of land in their country and the possibility of really getting your own house and piece of farmland within your lifetime and of achieving the security you need to truely be all you can be, free from the worries of economical slavery. Interestingly enough, many of my best friends are somewhere in East Europe, where conditions similar to Estonia exist. Some rural areas of Western Europe (such as abandoned Spanish mountain villages) also qualify. The idea would be to create self-sustained communities, in several countries, between which creative minds could spend their time. Common food resources and workspace, but individual living space. Call it an free-form open campus. Once people are guaranteed room and board among friends, in any country where their work takes them, true magic can start to happen. Without room and board, people have way too many worries about the basic necessities to have any energy left to think about improving society in any meaningful way, but once that is solved, sky’s the limit.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Mariella: Wonderfully put! Thank you for this. Your work is one of my new models of courage, and your perspective is very valuable.Evelyn: Two great stories and a great quote too — thanks. Looking forward to reading your story on your blog. And thanks for inspiring my post ‘Watch and you will know’.Martin-Éric: You’re much more generous than I am, and probably wiser. My financial background has programmed me to think I’d have to focus the investment in 4-5 big projects. You articulate well the ‘vicious cycle’ that leads to the tragic underemployment of the true talents of the vast majority of people in the affluent countries of the world (and maybe in the whole world). And I love the idea of taking advantage of the low real estate costs in the former Soviet countries to acquire land for Intentional Communities inexpensively. If only they were a bit warmer in climate ;-)

  6. Martin-Eric says:

    Dave: thanks for your comment. I really don’t think that it’s wisdom as much as counting myself among one of those who dared follow opportunities whereever they took me, but ending up tired of the rootlessness that resulted. That and realizing that, more than half of the time, whatever tool I need to properly do something is in storage somewhere else on this planet at a friend or relative’s place, which repeatedly resulted in missed opportunities. By the time we add the neverending irritants related to not having the right citizenship to fully participate in the life of the country where I happen to be living in, I just about reached a point where I had enough and wondered how things could be done better. Recently, I started running into more and more people wondering the same thing, thus how we ended up discussing possible solutions. The common trend seems to be creating intentional communities in as many countries as possible, within our own circle, and use that as a starting point. FWIW, the circle of friends I’m talking about is the FOSS community of Debian developers that gathered this summer in Helsinki.

  7. Martin-Eric says:

    Found on 3quarksdaily; explains rather well what I meant about intentional communities being the essential building block upon which to reach a point where basic necessities are taken care of, at which point we can finaly focus on higher goals:

    John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams, wrote, “I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

    Case in point: most of this planet is entangled into politics and wars. We missed our rise to the 2nd level and therefore are nowhere near the 3rd one either. Or well… we have to look way back into human history for the last time humanity had such a golden age. Am I the only one worried by this fact?

  8. Jon Husband says:

    Anyway I read this in a book and it buoyed me again since I’ve witnessed the truth in it: “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky.” – Ojibawa sayingEvelyn .. thank you

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