(with apologies to The Impressive Clergyman)
I don’t know particularly why, as I was ruminating about courage, literary and real life, a vision of the Impressive Clergyman from The Princess Bride came to mind. Just call it the weird free-association skills many writers possess and leave it at that, I suppose. But yes, courage is what brings us together today.
We need to start, as we always should, with a definition of terms. (Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start as I say/sing when I want to annoy my students.) But dictionaries are often lamentably unhelpful in cases like this. For example, I just went to my pocket Webster’s, and it said (rather predictably) courage is the quality of being brave. Oy. Webster has obviously never been in my class, because I frequently tell kids you cannot use a term to define itself. Well, you can, but that’s of absolutely no help to anyone, because it doesn’t address real definition. So let me give a definition of my own --- and a real-life example to make my point:
Some weeks ago, during this, my winter of discontent, which hasn’t really been made glorious by anything (sorry, Will), we had yet another episode in a seemingly endless series of winter snowstorms and cold, and the streets of my fair city were turned into glass. Glass. To call them slippery is like saying the Pacific contains some water. Unfortunately, most of my co-citizens seemed inexplicably unaware of this, because they were driving as though the roads were bare and dry. Or maybe they were just all too busy looking at their cell phones instead of paying attention to the condition of the roads. Yes. That could well be. At any rate, I decided I was going to leave them all to their own insanities, and take our light rail transit to work. So I did, and felt duly smug as I cruised serenely down the rail line, watching the auto drivers struggle their way on treacherous roads.
Therefore, it was a bit of a shock when, after arriving home and shoveling five or six inches of snow off our driveway, I checked my messages to find that my wife, downtown at a doctor’s appointment, had managed to lock herself out of her car… with the engine running and her phone inside. She was using a stranger’s phone to contact me. Oh no, I whimpered to myself as I listened to her tale of woe on my voicemail, please don’t make me come down and unlock the car. I deliberately avoided using my car today because of the roads. (I should pause here to explain I am an unmitigated wimp when it comes to bad roads and my car. And let’s be clear: it’s not my abilities I question; it’s those aforementioned lunatics, who seem to make up the largest percentage of drivers, whom I fear. No, my wife is unafflicted with my driving timidity --- although her attitude when driving in bad weather precariously straddles that fine line between courage and stupidity. Thanks for asking. And hopefully she isn’t reading this.)
In any event… yep, that what was what she needed of me: to drive down and open her car. So I finished listening to the message, looked up at the ceiling in exasperation --- I’m prepared to admit I may have said an unkind thing or two --- squared my tired shoulders and went back out into the frigid night, to my car… and negotiated my way to my wife. Even though I felt like I was scaling the slopes of Mount Doom the entire way. (Okay, okay, perhaps it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but… it felt like it. Allow me my own neuroses, please.)
The point is, a good definition of courage is this: being scared spitless of something, but going ahead and confronting that fear because you know you have to, not because you want to. It’s not about some psychotic maniac shouting gleefully, “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!” Those people are just plain crazy, in my humble correct opinion.
No, courage is Frodo standing at the Council of Elrond, knowing with dread how the endless palaver is inevitably going to turn out: it’s gonna have to be him who ends up with the damned Ring --- again ---and take it down to Mordor. Shucks and other comments.
Courage is Katniss shouting, “I volunteer as tribute!” because, even though she’s terrified for herself, she knows she cannot stand by and watch her sister die in the Hunger Games.
Courage is Harry leaving the pleasant safety of wherever he is --- whether it’s limbo or the afterlife or whatever --- to go back and engage in his Final Confrontation with Voldemort. Even though he doesn’t have to.
Those are examples of courage.
Acts of courage are the prime motivator in most stories we write. Not all. I never really thought that Alice was motivated by courage, for example, just curiosity. It was her inquisitive nature that compelled her to follow the rabbit down the hole, not her courage, and even when she was in the midst of Wonderland’s insanity, she seems to have approached the whole thing with a kind of detached bemusement, neither terrified nor courageous. Kind of like Pooh’s take on anything the Hundred Acre Wood could throw at him, come to that. Then again, Alice never actually ran up against the Jabberwock, so perhaps she was just a remarkably sanguine child.
But most stories begin with acts of courage --- from ordinary people who have no great desire to be heroes --- and are sustained with continuing acts of courage. Because, without them, most of the time… we have no stories.
So tweasuwe youw cuwwiage, even though it be both bwessing and cuwse.