Courage is a word that means different things to different people. It’s like Rashomon, the story that changed every time it was retold through a different perspective.
I know that some people think battling a disease is courageous. It’s not, really. What is brave about some of the afflicted, is that they don’t complain and keep their sorrow to themselves, like the mother who doesn’t want her children to worry but who is truly crumbling inside at the thought that she might not live to see them grow up.
My father had that type of bravery. When he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 42, he attacked the disease as he attacked the cases he handled as a litigator: passionately, but with intelligence. But instead of complaining about the bad hand fate had dealt him in the health department, he used the last year of his life to teach me a lesson. He sent me off to spend my Junior year at Bryn Mawr in Paris, and ignored my repeated pleas to stay home. Even though he knew that sending me off meant he’d lose the last year with his oldest child, he had the courage to pretend-for me-that we’d meet again. He didn’t want me to see him die.
But that is the small type of bravery, the one for the soup kitchen. Ted Flowers also had that grand, almost theatrical type of courage that led him down south to Mississippi to register black citizens to vote and run for local public office. Martin Luther King would be assassinated the following year. So would RFK, hope of the nation. Black Panther sympathizers would raise their gloved hands at the Olympics after their deaths. And the KKK was still in business.
Unfortunately, we also sometimes mistake something else for courage, because society makes us feel that speaking out or coming out or living our truth or shaming others into recognizing our truth is brave. I felt that way when ESPN gave Caitlyn (Nee Bruce) Jenner an award for becoming a woman and then talking about it for money. To me, that is not courage, neither the quiet unobtrusive kind or the arching and inspiring kind. Perhaps to some people it takes a special bravery to change your identity in a society that now accepts whatever you want to be, whenever you want to be it. But I’m not convinced.
The other day, I was thinking about courage. I’d come across something on my Facebook page that sent a chill down my spine, and tears to my eyes. It was a story I’d heard over twenty years ago, and I knew the details of the incident quite well, but seeing the pictures of the two men involved in the incident staring calmly back at the camera lens, frozen in time, brought home the enormous price that true courage demands.
It was the story of two soldiers who ran toward their downed comrades in Mogadishu, the famous “Black Hawk Down” episode. The soldiers knew that the occupants of the chopper which had been shot down by Somalian rebels would be captured and tortured, and they rushed-without any hesitation-to render assistance. According to the posting from the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation:
“As they reached the pinned-down crew members, [Master Sergeant Gary] Gordon and [Sergeant First Class Randy] Shughart immediately pulled the pilot and other crew members out and established a perimeter, placing them in a very vulnerable position. They killed a number of enemy attackers until they ran out of ammunition. After scrounging for spare ammo in the wreckage, providing some of it to the dazed helicopter personnel, Gordon and Shughart fought until they were fatally wounded.”
When I read this type of story, it reminds me that even amidst the mediocrity that we encounter in our lives, there is the potential for greatness. Courage like this conveys immortality. Lives lived in this manner are never fully extinguished.
That is the power of courage, at least for me. It is not the act of speaking out when society welcomes you. It is not showing off for the crowds. It is not being the “first” woman, or minority, or whatever, to do something important. It is not even fighting to survive an illness, unless the fight is to spare other people pain.
It is something indefinable, unexpected, sometimes unheralded. But we know it when
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org