Courage: preliminary thoughts

I don’t particularly care for my own thought process. It’s cheering to know that most people who write and feel compelled to write about their writing feel similarly. It’s not so much that it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Not so much that I can’t come up with a presentable enough essay, lesson or whatever in a week or so. It’s much more that it seems like I always have to take the long way around in getting there — always have to go through a bunch of introspection that probably won’t (and shouldn’t) make it into the final submission. It may be good for me and necessary to the work, but I find that much of the time we don’t talk to one another as though it were. We talk either as though most people don’t have such a process, or as something to be ignored and “gotten through;” perhaps as something to be embarrassed about, and certainly as highly inefficient. It also happens to be the only way for me to be able to say anything without feeling like I’m talking in chunks of partly misunderstood cliches.

I’ve been assigned to prepare a short talk and activity related to courage, to present to Moldovan teens next week. Actually, the activity is combined with someone else, and is about faith as well. I haven’t gotten to the activity yet, but I’ve been thinking about the talk every now and again. I’ve been looking for a way into it. Courage isn’t a virtue I have a natural affinity for, probably because I’ve never been in much obvious danger, and have never been in sustained contact with consistently dangerous, threatening people, places, or situations. The long lead in is because I know that the most direct way into this topic is by considering obviously brave people, especially saints, and still can’t approach it from that side. There’s no path there.

There is a path from three other sides. Four if you count Aristotle, but I’m not going to. One is about how, for Christians, faith and courage are closely interconnected, because the reason holy people give for doing courageous things, is because they are quite sure it’s what God wants them to do, and God will be responsible for the consequences. Even ordinary human bravery is almost always relational — you’re brave because your family or friend or comrade would otherwise be in greater danger, and you can’t let them down, or have to help and protect them. Another lies in how it’s no good just to tell people stories every now and again: generally courage is thought through intentional training that involves doing actually difficult things. In the military they do… whatever it is they do there. In the church it takes the form of various ascetic practices, which I have intentionally avoided learning about. Which brings me to the third approach (and I think I would use that word better if I always imagined approaching; coming nearer to, something), which involves considering those things that perhaps ought to require courage, which one has been neglecting. If I hadn’t been neglecting them, I wouldn’t need someone to tell me about them.

In the last, my own ignorance is less of a barrier to entry, and since this isn’t a research paper I’ll start there. Most of us, I suppose, have imaginations well stocked with scenarios requiring courage, often in life-threatening situations, or at least situations where one’s career or relationships are at risk. When asked about these, most reasonable people would say something like “I certainly hope I would do the right thing, but cannot be certain, since I’ve never faced such a thing.” That’s probably the only answer one can, give most of the time, and I don’t suppose another is called for, so long as it’s understood that not doing the right thing would be disgraceful, and one would then have to repent of it, which would be worse, and perhaps even more difficult, than accepting the challenge in the first place.

That’s speculation. Most of the time it’s more productive to ask about the thing that’s certainly before one, rather than the thing that may or may not come to one at some point in the future. One might, then, want to consider whether he is unduly afraid of something in a way that is preventing him from doing the right thing now, or rather on a regular basis. In other words: is there somewhere nearby where I ought to be practicing courage?

To answer this question, a person may have to do a bit of introspection, and may still be unsure. I’ve heard from people I trust that if we try to follow God, look to His guidance, and work at being humble and obedient, then God will be putting that moral intuition (conscience?) right in us, and we won’t go far wrong. Or if we do go wrong, there’s repentance, which is always better than indifference. So one takes a look around inside. In this case, the author of this blog, who has to start writing in first person again. Everything’s kind of fuzzy, but perhaps there’s a lead here or there. The kinds of leads that don’t turn themselves into solid thought very easily. I tend to be kind of afraid of saints, and of some of the harshness of the Orthodox church. And I don’t like that lead, because it won’t easily turn itself into a good story for church, for obvious reasons. But it’s what I have, so I’ve no choice but to go with it or pick a different approach. And I’m too ignorant for that, which is how I got here to begin with. Saints tend to say off-putting things without offering any explanation what they’re talking about or why, and to have an unnerving intensity and then write as though those who don’t share that intensity… I don’t even know. I guess they pray for us. They’ll write out a list of virtues, and include “thirst” among them. Having been recently thirsty, I’m not sure how that’s a virtue. It mostly seems to lead to things like nausea, cramps, dizziness, and lethargy. They’ll write about the spiritual life — of grace and loss of grace — in the vividest terms of bliss and torment, until one is wary of the grace, and misunderstands the whole point of the writing. They do crazy things. They live in caves and depend on wild deer to come by and offer them milk as sustenance. They lock themselves in prisons. They pray night and day standing in a single place for years at a time. They don’t sleep.  They refuse to lie down when they do sleep. They wonder around covered in chains. They cry for sins that most of us can’t tell are sins. Anyone who did that stuff and wasn’t filled with the Holy Spirit would be simply deranged.

I’m afraid of them because sometimes, when I pray or when I read their words (and occasionally their stories), I can feel a little of what they mean. And because we speak and write their words, and sometimes see a little into what they mean; perhaps even act a little into what they told us — but we also don’t, and warn people: “don’t do this at home without proper spiritual guidance!” which guidance is scarce, and then one is sometimes left to wonder what one can do with the guidance one has, and becomes rather muddled. We will present the advice of a saint, and tell each other not to follow that advice, at the same time, but without making the two contradict.

But perhaps I’m wandering from my topic. But the digression does show how questions of introspection are generally not simple. Or at least not easy for most of us (sinners) to see into. One gets a bit into the tangle that she is supposed to be untangling, and realizes that this is why she was avoiding it to begin with. But, then: courage? Courage needs wisdom, faith, humility, obedience — it needs all the other important virtues to function properly. They all need one another. We tell stories of people who were dreadfully deluded by demons because they had courage, but not humility, or wisdom, or obedience; and so it became foolhardiness. One has to be doing the right thing, and not simply the impressive thing (humility), or the expected thing (wisdom), or the thing that seems right at the moment, but your leaders are telling you is wrong (obedience).

So perhaps I find myself flailing around a bit, and wondering how any of this can possibly have value to a group of teens in the course of a fifteen minute talk which is really ten minutes because of language. I find myself sitting up at midnight pouring too many cups of tea and eating a cheese pastry, and think: what a terribly inefficient process this is! And at the same time knowing that when I’ve tried taking short-cuts (usually in the course of writing lesson plans), it always ended up badly in the end, and usually I had to come back and start again anyway. I don’t really distrust this process, even if it is rather cumbersome, and I end up putting up unpolished notes.

To be continued. Suggestions would be lovely.

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