It may have to be mornings after all.
— § —
No, I’m not a morning person, and I stand by the evaluation that I’ve always been more productive in the evenings and even very late at night.
But this morning, and not for the first time, as I was stumbling around trying to get coffee to drip, I was swelling with things that needed to be said, writing that needed to be done. I was composing blearily, with every footstep and every motion of an arm or a finger.
A couple of hours later, I’m deeply embroiled in domesticity. Making breakfast, dressing children, cleaning dishes, talking about furniture and bills. The mayhem is rising and will reach its daily level of ascendance soon.
And every thought I had in the early, relatively quiet darkness is gone. I can’t remember two words.
That’s a loss, one that leaves me here writing meta again, a kind of writing that seems to have overtaken my life, and not for the better.
— § —
Much of American culture today seems to me to be characterized by a distinct lack of courage. As a people, we’ve become a field of wilting grandstanders.
- We lack the courage of our convictions
- In many cases, we lack the courage to have them in the first place
- We lack the courage to do what needs to be done
- We lack the courage to associate with or even acknowledge those that disagree with us
- We lack the courage to confront our past
- We lack the courage to confront our future
- We lack the courage to face our present and accept who we are
This is where the tea party comes from. This is why a 2005 Gallup poll found that only two percent of Americans consider themselves rich but 31 percent imagine that they will be rich before they die. This is why we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and why we’re still there.
Those on the right (politicians most notably amongst them) often claim to be acting courageously, accuse the left of lacking the courage to (for example) invade other countries, “defend freedom,” upset constituencies like those of the “illegal immigrants” (despite the fact that relatively recent Supreme Court rulings tell us that there is no such thing).
It’s not courage they’re showing. It’s a combination of fear, overcompensation, and the characteristic big-talking, acting-out bluster of the playground bully that terrorizes others even as he trembles inside at his inadequacy, the teachers that don’t view him favorably, and the parents whose approval he has never earned.
Courage, in the sense that I’m talking about, is quiet. It never reacts; it never pontificates; it is never pre-emptive. It responds calmly to actualities, answers difficult questions humbly—without seeking to change the universe or rewrite the fabric of reality—when times get tough.
Real courage is reluctant but stoic, staid but determined, and deeply, deeply humane, being open enough to experience and actuality to face the injustices of the universe, regret them, and accept them with profound empathy.
But perhaps most basically, real courage does what needs to be done—nothing less, and, perhaps more critically, nothing more. Courage is not about excess, nor is it the same thing as bravery. Bravery can be misguided, even foolish; courage seeks and valorizes wisdom despite the threat to complacency and easy equanimity that it often embodies.
At every level, Americans lack courage, but for a few. I think this is what I ultimately sense as being different about New York. It is a more courageous city, by far, than the one in which I live now. It is the polar opposite of Los Angeles, a place almost completely devoid of courage of any kind.
I think that is the quality that has drawn so many Americans to Barack Obama, and that causes so many others to recoil from him in horror. To embrace him, these others would have to confront not only the lack of courage that empties their lives of significance, but also all of the discomforts that his courage and wisdom force us to acknowledge and confront.
Much easier to make monsters of the budget deficit, the national debt, Muslims, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Mexico, people of color, welfare queens, those not taking “responsibility” for their lives, the tree-huggers, the abortive whores, the godless atheists, and so on, than to understand the monsters of human nature, including our own, and to struggle to subdue them, despite the implications for our own slice of the human pie and its already meager size, despite the implications for our own individual culpabilities and those of our families for the state of the world today and tomorrow.
By skillfully deploying a lack of courage, we don’t have to face the notion that our own situations and those of the least among us result from the choices of the grandparents and parents that loved us, the fellow countrymen that claimed to stand with us. By skillfully deploying a lack of courage, we don’t have to face the devastating truth that the lives of our own children and innumerable children around the globe will be determined both by forces that we cannot control (a terrifying prospect) and by the choices that we make tomorrow, that we will make today, and that we have already made and cannot take back (a prospect more terrifying and heart-rending still).
Disaster situations draw this state of affairs into relief. In the responses to natural and national disasters, it becomes startlingly easy, for a brief moment, to evaluate the differences between courageous wisdom and schoolyard flailing and bullying. The former acknowledges difficulty and responsibility, then gets quietly down to work, never complaining or politicizing. The latter casts about for someone to blame and for easy fixes rooted in platitudes that can enable us all to forget long before the job is (or, indeed, before the many jobs are) well and truly done.
— § —
I have come to terms with the fact that my initial timetable for writing my dissertation was perhaps optimistic. It was, in short, not a particularly courageous one, but rather one that sought to short-circuit the need to face the task ahead of me by proclaiming its completion almost before I’d begun.
This does not mean, however, that I lack confidence or determination now.
The last few days have shown me that I can and will do this. But it will probably take a few months, rather than a few weeks, and they will be hard months full of sacrifice and soul-searching.
So much the better. It’s time to get to work. I finally think I’m there—cognizant of and steeped in the actual work that is to be done, step by necessary step, rather than constantly throwing myself into sudden, all-encompassing, and abortive efforts in an attempt to finish in a single day or week so as not to have to muster what it takes to stay on task for months at a time.
You can’t finish it in a single “push.” And until you accept that, you can’t finish it (or indeed even properly begin) at all.