The other day I found myself as a replacement minister doing a service at the Unitarian Church. Immediately the thought came into my mind… the one thing we all need now is courage; this is part of the address…
When I think about courage, I realised how much I sympathise with my friends at the moment who shrink from reading newspapers, and hearing or seeing the news, and I realised courage comes in all forms, from the dreadfully inappropriate to the merry and bright, and dare I say it, even frivolous.
I reckoned that my first 20th Century label for inappropriate courage had to go to all those men who volunteered for action in the First World War, and started out with courage, and ended with dreadful injury or a sad death. And then I thought about the conscientious objectors, 16,000 in the First World War, who did everything from trying to be useful, to going to jail and being reviled generally, and it seemed to me that in a way they were a lot more courageous than their counterparts who went to war, but then… after some thought… it also occurred to me that some of those 16,000, apart from the moral issue, were afraid of being blown apart, so maybe not all of them were courageous after all.
And this line of thought carried me (inevitably perhaps) to that sort of bravado-type-courage that people have when things are down, and they start to make jokes about the awfulness of their predicament… and I was reminded of my sister, who within days of death, commenting on some trivial administrative issue related to her impending demise, said, “Oh dear this situation is so inconvenient, perhaps I should have died last week.” In a tight corner there is something to be said for adopting an air of swashbuckling silliness, and maybe the bravado brand of courage has to be a particularly good thing, because it defuses problems for the person who voices the joke, and also makes everyone around them feel a lot less scared. It does seem that courage comes in a lot of shapes and forms, and possibly the bravest amongst us are those that are most fearful, but confront their fear and still act on their beliefs. That category of courage covers everything from fearful yet brave ambulance drivers that face gruesome road accidents every day to actors who are fearful every time they go on stage. On my father’s side, I come from a family of worriers — people who used to get frightened at the tiniest things, so terrified that they couldn’t move, and were rooted to the spot when anything alarmed them… My mother who like many young women of her time, had witnessed much that was fearful and gruesome amidst the bomb-sites of WW2 London was not a worrier, but was sent to live in leafy Cambridge with her in-laws, for the safety of herself and her baby, and she found her in-laws odd and amusing, tucked away in their cosy leafy world. The best worriers were her mother in law (my Grandmother) and her sister Great Aunt Ray. One sunny day, out for a walk, my mother was particularly amazed and amused when Aunt Ray flatly refused to walk past a sleeping tramp on the side of the road. My mother, who had been brought up in the real world and knew very well that sleeping tramps did not as a rule leap on passers-by for no reason… had real problems coming to terms with the terror that rooted these fearful old ladies to the spot, whether the offending threat was a spider or somebody having a snooze in the sun.
Dan Zadra, the best selling author (that I have never read) has made a very valuable observation, which is that worry is a misuse of imagination, and I agree with this one. As the great niece of my Aunt Ray, I can imagine what she must have feared when she saw the snoozing tramp – he could have been a mass murderer, and vicious thief, a baby snatcher, so many things, but to my mum, with her wise and balanced view of the world, he was none of those things, and she was of course right. That is not to say that my mother’s imagination was any less great than that of Aunt Ray’s, it was just put to better purpose.
This apart, it must be said that at certain times in history the signs and signals of what is happening around us in the world may not seem to bode well. When we see things happen and make gloomy predictions and they do happen, these predictions can only reinforce our fears. In the order of things, we face choices, but speaking from experience I would say that the Aunt Ray school of terror, which roots one to the spot in moments of uncertainty is neither useful nor helpful. There is a lot to be said about a life gifted with faith, mingled with a bit of mindless frivolity… although I think faith is usually more useful than frivolity. With luck and a fair wind, faith can help us walk on burning coals, skip through the valley of death, walk around the neighbour’s fence, or better still the great Mexican Wall … I think a bit of cheerful tripping around things has to be sensible, and best of all it can be very effective. To people of faith and courage, problems and obstacles just present interesting opportunities, no more and no less. Scenarios of fear and seeming danger present different perceptions to different people, and those of faith who don’t fear death are very powerful indeed. This apart, I don’t think I will ever denigrate somebody who is fearful at this moment in time, because I find the current news so utterly bizarre, so unpleasant and so threatening to so many good and innocent people.
Having faith, inbuilt faith is something that has to be cherished, and I particularly cherish those parables that remind us how useful faith can be. There is one I was told many years ago that has always stayed with me. It’s very much something of the 70s, and belongs to the days when we were all reading stuff like Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but this parable stayed with me whereas the book of Motorcycle Maintenance didn’t, thank goodness.
The story goes… that you are a traveller on the road of life, walking through rough terrain and you come to a river, a river that just isn’t friendly enough to be swum across, but there, on the same side as you, much to your surprise is a very useful little raft tethered to the bank. So, you get onto the raft, and paddle to the other side of the river, and get off ready to continue your journey of life.
But it is at this point you face a dilemma, do your strap the raft onto you back and carry it, despite the discomfort, but knowing that you would have a useful raft should you come to another river? Or do you just keep walking, knowing that whatever you encounter, you will always be OK, you will always be looked after? This is all about faith and trust, and apparently, there are two kinds of people in the world, the fearful folk, that do not expect to be looked after, who prefer to be burdened by the raft, and so must carry it, or those that step into the unknown, ditch the raft, and trust. And so here is the question – are you a person of faith and courage, or not?
I think that we have entered a phase in time, when negative forces are splendidly visible in all their seeming nastiness. It seems to me that voices with strongly destructive tendencies and ugly aims have been given the opportunity to be heard, and by being given this power to broadcast far and wide, the broadcasters of doom and gloom have now set about marginalising good people, containing them, pushing them to the edge, saying that some of us are lesser beings because we are a particular age, race, colour, sex, or religion, and because of this we should have less or maybe no rights. But of course, this is nothing new. The priests of despair have always preached fear. It’s all about fear created in the minds of those that preach and those that listen. This is the message that lies at the heart of their words. For thousands and thousands of years the priests of doom have chosen to summon up the darkest ideas about difference, difference of all kinds, be it women in cahoots with the devil, or aliens from another country who have come here to take over our homes, our jobs and the very air we breathe. But the message of fear shouldn’t be met with fear. We need to counter this fear with courage… the courage to reject the preaching of fear for its ugliness, we need the courage to marginalise the very arguments themselves, the courage to laugh at the inanity of these priests of misery, and celebrate the beauty, power and glory of diversity, in our City our people and life, in all its beauty. As Franklin D Roosevelt said (almost exactly 84 years ago) at his inauguration as president ‘let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’
It seems to me… that we simply need to travel the journey of life unburdened by fearful arguments, so that when we do arrive at another river, we can expect to see a first-rate raft, big enough and safe enough to take as many co-travellers as we choose on our life journey, and invite them to enjoy the ride on the raft and enjoy the view as well, and sail happily across together. Courage is the companion of faith, and faith does so well when it’s garnished with optimism and the mysterious magic of bravado, however frivolous, cheerful and silly.