May 3, 2009

Courage, Service, Duty

There are different sorts of courage, and perhaps different degrees of courage. But it's important to recognize courage, to have courage and to act with courage.

We tend to focus on the dramatic when we talk of courage. It's a sort of sensationalism. Sensationalism has its place, but it tends to warp reality and feed both our prejudices and the excuses we tell ourselves.

I'm reminded of a conversation I once had with a wise man (a cousin of mine) about duty and service. It stuck with me, and I've spent a long time thinking about it. I keep returning to it. He had an interesting problem with the phrase "thank you for your service" when people seemed to use it reflexively in talking to members of the armed forces. I don't want to represent, and possibly misrepresent, his opinion. Instead, I'll simply tell you what I took from the conversation.

People exhibit courage every day when they give of themselves to help others, and that's not very sensational. But it is vital to a working society. It is their service, often involving decisions that are not self-serving, that enriches and strengthens the community. It's wrong to think of duty, service and courage as something that other people do because of their chosen profession or their uniform. It's wrong to think that thanking those people absolves you of your own duty. And these reflexive actions do encourage a sort of lionization of certain sorts of service to the detriment of others. The effect is insidious and eventually erosive.

When we're conditioned and reinforced to recognize a very narrow definition of duty and courage, that makes it easier to ignore what those words may mean to our own lives at the moments where these virtues are important in our small decisions and large, life-altering choices.

To summarize (and hopefully prevent myself from belaboring that point) weave service, and courage into the choices of your life rather than simply recognizing them in sensational or pre-approved examples.

Society recognizes courage, but it tends to generate group-approved courage rather than individual courage. The courage of the group is a sort of means of multiplying our power to make change by working together toward a single goal. Society has given us the organization which allows us to lower the bar on courage because our fellow man has "got our back." When we're working together, our comfort zone is larger. That's good news, because our self-sacrifice can be worth more.

However, groups can go astray. What role does courage play then?

Without the cover of your group, it must be incredibly difficult to do what you feel is the right thing. And it is often a thankless job, as Joe Darby has learned. After turning in the pictures of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, he's left feeling like a marked man. He was run out of his hometown, where they were not very thankful of his service to what he saw as his job, his country and his conscience. He has had to live under armed guard after Donald Rumsfeld revealed his identity. He has sacrificed a number of things, including his peace of mind, for what he thought was right. Joe says he has never regretted turning those pictures in; he doesn't see himself as a hero.

People who do courageous things often say "I don't see myself as a hero. I just did my job." They're not just being modest. What they're really telling us is that it is our job, too.

Posted by James at May 3, 2009 2:01 PM
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