Monday, January 16, 2006
January 16, 2006 - Courage
Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., so I’m thinking about courage.
Somebody told me recently, at the church door, that she thinks I have a lot of courage in facing cancer the way I am. I appreciate the affirmation, but that’s not the word I would have chosen. I don’t feel especially courageous as I go about the business of preparing for treatment. It’s just what has to be done - and, if truth be told, I'm feeling plenty frightened about it.
It’s not uncommon for people to attribute courage to those fighting major illnesses – although I think that, in many cases, it may be more of a projection of the speaker’s own feelings and aspirations than a description of reality.
By the same token, when an athlete hobbles off to the locker room for treatment after being knocked temporarily senseless on the playing field, the stadium crowd typically responds with thunderous applause. Sometimes the sportscasters will say something like, “Just look at that the way that young man got up again – what courage!”
Is it really courage to get up again, after being knocked down? What’s the alternative?
True courage, I think, is when there is an alternative, and a person voluntarily chooses the course that could lead to suffering, for the sake of others. Often this suffering is an example of what Jesus calls, in the Beatitudes, “persecution for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10). Firefighters climbing the World Trade Center staircase: that’s courage. Soldiers going into battle to fight for worthy ideals and defend their comrades: that’s courage. A woman defying her abusive husband and seeking a restraining order to protect her children: that’s courage.
But seeking medical treatment, however painful or unpleasant it may be, in order to avoid even worse suffering – is that courage? I’m not so sure it is. It may be determination, or resignation, or even common sense – but it’s hardly courage.
Now what Dr. King decided to do each day of his life, in those last years – putting his life on the line to continue the struggle for justice – that’s courage. King knew the risks he was facing, as he acknowledged in a speech the day before he was assassinated:
“And then I got into Memphis, and some began to say the threats – or talk about the threats – that were out, what would happen to me from some of our white sick brothers. Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now, because I have been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody I would like to live – a long life – longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now; I just want to do God's will.... So I'm happy tonight! I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
I hope I find sufficient courage to face my treatments and their side-effects with equanimity. Yet even if I don’t feel a sense of peace about it, I’m still going to undergo them. There’s no alternative. Such courage as I may find will surely be more of a gift from God than anything I already have in me.
These hymn stanzas (from William Cowper’s 1774 hymn, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way”) speak of courage as God’s gift:
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.”