Thoughts on Courage this Memorial Day Weekend

I wrote the first draft of the following a couple of years ago.  I revised and updated it a little bit so I could post it this weekend.  I hope it is somewhat beneficial to you:

Introduction

I think I originally defined courage to be a willingness to do what is right despite the odds, the difficulties, and the opposition. That may be somewhat accurate, but it seems sterile, lacking any insight into how to actually have courage as a practical matter. I am learning it takes a lot of experience to really understand courage. I am learning courage is more about the strength of one’s character…strength of character when the gritty intensity of doubt, fear, personal discomfort, and emotional despair arise within the soul and body. It is not really something that can be communicated by a definition. I, at least, appreciate examples or illustrations. Accordingly, the stories about courage, in combination with my own minor experiences, are what have helped me to grasp what courage really is, not just in the big moments of life, but in daily difficulties common to us all.

Stories Mingled with Experience

Some of the best examples that have helped me to start to understand courage come through stories. Some are true stories, some are not. My favorites include Glory, The Last Samurai, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, among others. While the stories themselves provide a framework for viewing the struggle to be courageous, to put character over comfort or convenience, they have become more personal to me, and have grown in meaning, as I have experienced something of the fears and doubts that are depicted. Like fear and doubt that makes you nauseous, that starts to paralyze your thinking, that wells up in an urge to avoid or run away, that makes your body shake, or has other real, physical manifestations.

For example, in the book of the The Hobbit, Bilbo has finally made it to the Lonely Mountain where the great dragon Smaug lays on a hoard of treasure deep in the mountain tunnels which the dragon has stolen from Dwarves and Men he has murdered and plundered. As you probably could tell from the recent movie, Bilbo has been brought on the adventure as a burglar to assist in recovery of the treasure. But he is really just an average person who prefers the comfort of his home, good food, simple pleasures, and a lack of danger. His climactic moment of truth in the book does not happen when you think. It does not come at the first point of danger dealing with trolls, when he fights spiders in the forest, or even in subsequent adventures. At those points, he is almost too ignorant of the real danger to be truly courageous. Instead, it comes later on, when he is the one who is to go into the tunnels to scout out the dragon and the treasure, and he is left to do so alone because the other 13 members of his group are themselves too scared to come with him. He has made it past much, but at this point of the book the emphasis is on the fact that he is fully aware of the danger and he has a choice.

While the dangers and reality are shear fantasy, Tolkien still does a practical job of describing courage. Bilbo is heading down a narrow tunnel in pitch darkness, scarred of the danger ahead, but also driven by a sense of duty, honor, and responsibility. He gets to a point in his walk where his fears, his real concern about the uncertainty of his ability to be successful, even to survive the trip, causes him to pause. He has a choice to make at that moment: Does he go on, or go back. In that point, Tolkien elects to tell the reader that this is the moment when Bilbo is bravest. He is aware, afraid, emotionally struggling, and he has a real opportunity to turn back. He has a decision to make that is about what kind of character he will have, not about what makes logical sense, is profitable, or safe. He has to decide whether he will be the person who proceeds, despite the risks, or the person who turns back when faced with justifiable fear.

Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings or in The Chronicles of Narnia, there are specific points when the Hobbits of the Shire or the children in Narnia, are in situations where the reader, and even the character, knows what needs to happen. It is not usually the first or even second major situation, but an informed situation where the characters are aware of the gravity of the situation, and are more specifically facing the question: Who will I be? This is where I think Tolkien and C.S. Lewis masterfully expose the true internal struggle related to courage and bravery, in order to emphasize that the choice is not really about benefit versus cost, but about character, regardless of the cost. Are they going to be the type of person who is faithful, trustworthy, honorable, and committed in the face of terrible consequences, or will they discount these traits for comfort, personal safety, and ease?

I believe this intimate understanding and ability to communicate this struggle by the likes of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis derives from their personal experiences in the Great War. The communication is not trite, but personal, like one who has stood in a trench under cover before the command to charge is given, not for the first or second time, but for the fourth or fifth time—after one has seen the real consequences: the death of good friends, the violence and calamity of the moment, the putrid smells, the incredible physical inconvenience. Then they have a real choice to make. Will they climb out of the cover and charge with their comrades? What kind of man will they be?

And at the end of that moment of personal struggle, the decision is not to charge for king and country, for the glory of an ideal, or to bring the war to a successful close. And the decision to charge is not really courage or bravery if it is based primarily on the penalty for refusing to carry out the order. Courage and bravery are when one charges because one values their own character, their faithfulness, their friends and comrades, and their honor more than their convenience or comfort, enough that they can overcome their justified fear and doubt, and move from inaction, passivity, or evasion, to resolve. And it is not an intellectual exercise, but one of your whole being: body, mind, and soul. It involves real inconvenience and discomfort: overcoming the sickness in the stomach, throwing up in fear, or the urge to escape.

Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day weekend, I am overcome with emotion and tears because I think of the men and women who have exhibited this character over the years for me. My grandfathers who fought in World War II in the Pacific, one as a supply truck driver and the other as a gunner’s assistant reloading anti-aircraft guns on an oiler and witnessed the death of the man right next to him. I think of the men portrayed in the landing craft at Omaha Beach throwing up as the boats sped toward machine gun fire, and then being gunned down as soon as the doors opened. I think of the men paralyzed by fear, but who overcame that fear, as their leaders admonished them to hold the lines against advancing enemies and tanks. I think of my wife’s grandfather, Boppa, who served as an officer in the Pacific fleet and first turned to run when his ship was hit by enemy fire and oil began to fill his compartment, but then stopped, turned in the doorway, and ordered his fellow sailors to stay at their posts.

They fought a great battle and won. It was not the battle of who won the day, who defeated the Nazi’s or Imperial Japan, or who faced the enemy of the time. It was the battle we all have to face in our daily lives, writ large. Who am I going to be? What is my character? Will I overcome the fear and doubt that rages within me? They won that battle, even when winning the internal battle meant they would die.

Application

The lesson I am learning, and that this day brings home anew, is that I need to fight the internal, little battles every day to be able to win the big, external battles yet to come. I don’t think the men and women we remember succeeded in the big moments we remember because that was when it mattered. I think they succeeded at those times because they had practiced winning the smaller battles we do not know about so when the big events happened, they were ready.

I struggle with fear and doubt in the daily events of my life. Work is not easy. There are fights and conflicts in litigation, depositions, hearings, and trials. Home is not always easy either. It is often easier to check out than to discipline my children or engage my wife. Friends and church are not easy. I don’t want to carry other’s burdens, or risk the backlash from calling others to account. Faith and politics are not easy. I don’t want to be ostracized or inconvenienced for standing up for an unpopular conviction or for sacrificing for those in need. I am afraid of failure. So, what sort of man will I be? Will I run away? Will I seek safety and ease? Will I find the ability to resolve to be faithful, honorable, and reliable, to have integrity, despite the churning gut and shaking hands?

There was a man who knew he had to pay the ultimate sacrifice, a death by torture, in a backwater nowhere of the Roman Empire. He stayed up the whole night before the day of his death praying that God, his own father, would find another way. But when the night was over, he got up, and he willingly surrendered to what he knew he had to do. That was courage and bravery.

I head now to a picnic with family and neighbors, to play football, and eat hot dogs and burgers on a perfect clear evening of a Memorial Day in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Right now, everything is good. But these times of contentment are not my right, and they are not what life is all about.

Ease and Safety

I like ease, peace, and contentment. I like being safe and unafraid. But to some extent, we have inherited such opportunities because of those before us who decided that, for themselves, at one time or another, they would hold on to their good character as being more important than their own ease or safety. And while they did it for us, because that is what good character is all about, they also did it for themselves—because that is also what good character is all about.

The Paradox

As I grow to understand courage, I realize that the ease and safety I have inherited because of men and women who valued their character, is also a real temptation that can overwhelms my own struggle to be courageous. It is perhaps a paradox that in rejecting ease and safety as less valuable than their own character, my parents, grandparents, and others have given me greater ease and safety than they ever had. And it is another paradox that if I am going to really embrace their example and sacrifice, and if I am going to gain the kind of character they had, I will need to practice personal sacrifice, face my fears, and fight the temptation to live in the very ease and safety they have made possible. So I will strive to do this, not because I am masochistic or contemptuous, but because character is more important than having ease and safety, and embracing ease and safety without character is the surest way to lose both character and any ease or safety.

Character Over Ease and Safety

So while we honor them today, in a place of ease and safety, I am challenged to accept, and even embrace, the opportunities I have to fight my fears and doubts in the everyday events of life, no matter how difficult or inconvenient it may be. In doing so, I accept that ease and safety are not the most important things, and they are not self-sustaining. The most important thing is my character, and that takes hard work in the small things so I can be prepared to hopefully be courageous when the big events come.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Courage this Memorial Day Weekend

  1. Your thoughts bring tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing this Doug. It reaffirms what I have known about you for a long time – you already have the strength of character you describe. And I am so happy that you are in my life, setting that example for me to follow.

  2. Hello Doug,

    Thank you for your comments, your writings on your thoughts.
    Though written in 2013, you have stated in perfect timing of the present,
    giving encouragement to me to press on forward and open a Real Estate office here in Georgia.

    Sincere regards,
    Nancy Ammons

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