Have I Ever Been Brave?
FOR THE PAST FEW weeks I’ve been reading The Rising Sun, John Tolland’s tome about World War II from the Japanese perspective, and I’ve been knocked out by wartime Japan’s embrace of fighting to the last breath as the alternative to surrender. According to Tolland and his interviewees, the Japanese military, eight decades ago, had an ideological commitment to suicidal warfare that easily matched that of more modern practitioners of “holy martyrdom.”
The fanaticism that motivated this, and the courage required to implement it, are both entirely beyond my comprehension. Even at age 70, I can’t think of anything that would convince me to sacrifice my life, unless that sacrifice were required to guarantee the safety of one of my loved ones (and I can’t quite imagine what kind of scenario that would be). Nevertheless, reading about suicide-warfare all month has prompted me to think hard about the question: Have I ever done anything really courageous?
Outsiders looking at my life might think so: I’ve hitchhiked back and forth across the continent twice, grabbing rides with hundreds of strangers; I took the chance of evading grad school and becoming a writer to try to make my living out of self-expression; I entered the unknown land of private adoption and came out with twins; I moved out of the city decades before the pandemic made that a popular move.
And I once rode a galloping horse bareback . . .
Nonconformity isn’t necessarily courageous, however; I simply had to have enough ego to believe I would never have to wear a necktie to get by. And when I consider it deeply, I think my nonconformism may actually have been more motivated by my fear of entering the “real world” than by any artistic or bohemian passion. I’m very good at translating fear into alienation and disdain . . .
NONETHELESS, I have experienced a few courageous moments in Bohemia:
• Once, on the subway, I interfered with an antisemitic bully who was taunting two very young Hasidic boys. I did it by sidling up to the guy and murmuring, loud enough for his cronies to hear: “What are you doing, man? They’re little kids.” He did the “Who the hell are you?” routine, but by the time he’d roused himself to confront me, the train was pulling into the station and I ushered the young boys out the door.
• On a subway platform, I once saw a guy being robbed by two other guys. I shouted, “Hey! What are you doing?” and the muggers ran off, and then I accompanied the muggee to the token booth.
• On the A-train coming from Far Rockaway (whew, those subways have been dangerous for me!), I was alone in the car with two young men who sat on either side of me and demanded money. I decided to talk them out of it: I told them why I was coming from Far Rockaway (doing a journalistic piece about community resistance to the supersonic noise of the Concorde), why black and white people needed to stick together against the system, etcetera. While I blabbed, one of them kept saying, “Give me the blade, give me the blade,” but his blade-carrying companion refused, and before they got off the train, he assured me that robbery was not really his thing.
• On the sidewalks of New York, I once saw a big sister berating her brother about absolutely nothing. The kid (he was about 7) simply wasn’t being a proper zombie, he was just naturally twitchy, like a young dancer. As his sister went on and on verbally abusing him and yanking him by the arm, I sped up my steps to catch them at the corner, and as they moved to cross left while I crossed right, I touched the kid’s shoulder and murmured: “Listen, it isn’t you. It’s her. You got that?” Big Sis, out in front, didn’t notice, but the boy definitely took it in.
THESE DAYS, I’m certainly no more physically courageous than I’ve ever been. I still get very nervous at the edge of a cliff, and I can’t even swing on a playground swing any more without feeling overwhelmed. My biggest thrill is wrestling with my giant dog; when she rears up on me, it’s like a bear attack. But I know she won’t hurt me (and I still have about fifty pounds on her).
Emotionally, however, I hope I’ve made some progress towards being courageous. What I’ve come to count as courage, after all, is the antithesis of being a suicidal warrior: It is to work at being fully alive instead of playing dead, at being twitchy instead of frozen, at being open-minded instead of singleminded.
When I think of tapping that kid on the shoulder, it reminds me of the game, Ringolevio, in which you release prisoners by risking capture while shouting,"All in! All in! Free all!"