I’m turning 67 this month and still don’t know if I might really be a coward.
My deepest and darkest fear is that, when it will most be needed, the courage vault will be empty. Indeed, the poet John Berryman once said that: “The trouble with this country is that a man can live his entire life without knowing whether or not he is a coward.” So I suspect I am not alone. But I still do feel alone and fraudulent, looking in the mirror, wondering if I have the chops and whether the warrior archetype is just bullshit happy talk. Hard wired for it, my ass.
If only the journey to bravery were as simple as it was for The Cowardly Lion, when he met Dorothy and her companions.
She slaps him upside the head and says “Why, you’re nothing but a great big coward!” He replies [crying, sniffling] “You’re right, I am a coward. I haven’t any courage at all. I even scare myself.”
Then, after they’ve killed the Wicked Witch and have confronted the Wizard behind the curtain, the lion is told:
“As for you my fine friend, you are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger you have no courage. You are confusing courage with wisdom. Back where I come from we have men who are called heroes. Once a year they take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it down the main street of the city. And they have no more courage than you have. But they have one thing that you haven’t got. A medal. Therefore, for meritorious conduct, extraordinary valor, conspicuous bravery against wicked witches, I award you The Triple Cross. You are now a member of the Legion of Courage!”
I looked everywhere in my house and can’t find anything conferring such an honor on me. I have never said with certainty “I am a coward” and then been set free from the iron vice of fear. I just don’t know.
It’s not that I’ve never faced any fears in my life. I have done well sometimes and been cowardly many others.
It was scary on Denali when the wind was like a feral beast. Boxing was scary. So was being in jail, asking a girl out for the first time (the eighth grade graduation dance), divorce court, small claims court, the IRS vacating my bank account for unpaid taxes, almost dying from necrotizing fasciitis, seeing my son in the hospital after open heart surgery, my daughter threatening to kill herself, walking foolishly through the Hunter’s Point projects with my son on the way to a Giants game at Candlestick Park, seeing blood in my urine after a run, being coiled in the starting blocks before a hurdle race, performing a trumpet solo in a concert, speaking Spanish while knowing I sounded like a dumb ass gringo, grieving over my dad’s death for the first time and wondering if I’d ever stop crying, calling a man I admired to tell him how much he had once hurt me, being in the Cathedral Projects in Boston’s South End when I was in seminary, having a cardiac catheterization, going on ambulance calls as an EMT, having my father die and having my world fall apart when I was five.
I faced all of those, and more, and came through.
There are also all the times when I did not make a scary phone call and the times when I acted like a passive candy ass with some angry asshole, retelling it later to make myself sound more manly than I was.
Some kind of courage is required in the course of a life. People have to do these things and they never get a medal. Whether I am in the final analysis a coward or not, you’re at least seeing me face a fear as you read this. Since I have self-identified as a writer, even though it has been the truth for most of my life, there’s a lot more at stake whenever I press “send” or “publish.” It isn’t a one and done, fear finally extinguished. As someone I admire said, being a warrior doesn’t mean winning or even succeeding. It means risking and failing and risking again, as long as you live.
I will submit this article and, as I do so often, say fuck it, no more time, at least it’s done, however good it is (or isn’t). Two ideas just swept over me and buoyed my ass up.
- (1) Rejection and fear are (and will never cease to be) my constant companions, like for any other writer
- (2) Keep on writing no matter what, no matter how I feel.
As Junot Diaz said, “You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”
I may end up taking the long dirt nap still not knowing whether I was ultimately a coward.
All I can do is take the next step and write the next paragraph.
Read more of Craig Jones and his “GratiDude” HERE