I couldn’t have been more than ten when my grandma passed away. I remember her, wasted away, lying on her bed in an aging manufactured home, with an IV in arm, dying of cancer. By that point she’d been so saturated with morphine that conversation was impossible, slurred speech uttering impossibilities and hallucinatory babble, a loving old woman’s mind worn with the onslaught of opiates and an ever-increasing, inescapable misery. I can think of many words to describe the scene, mostly tragic; but brave is certainly not one of them. And unlike so many organizations and people frequently do, I wouldn’t dare use the word brave to describe anyone dying of AIDS, or anyone else battling cancer, or any other person suffering from any other sort of disease, however warm I may appear by doing so. We may perhaps call them stoical, recognizing that certain smile in the face of adversity, and comparing them with the renowned Roman ascetics; but to call them brave is neither fair not true.
No — it isn’t brave to continue living, any more than a man can be considered brave for jerking the wheel to avoid an oncoming car, or even for eating food when he’s famished. Man perhaps has the illusion of immortality — and in one sense, he is correct, for the spirit is immortal; but the body certainly isn’t. Physical Man is ever on the verge of death, a soul contained and propelled through time and space within a fragile machine; a machine requiring constant nurture and protection through a faculty of fear and pleasure and reason and will. And if we say that survival alone is bravery, then what exactly is cowardice?
If we’re to be sensible about the matter, bravery is something far different than the will to survive: it has to be something transcendent, something that values someone or something more than life itself. And we may say it values something more than life itself, for many have died not simply in pursuit of people, but in pursuit of honor, holiness, justice, fidelity — romance, brotherhood, duty, and patriotism — always involving other people (for man’s moral nature is always relational), but yet also something invisible, imperceptible with physical eyes, and yet beautiful to the mind. It’s that something that drives him almost into madness, steed beneath and sword upraised, in search of something untouchable with mere hands; that Great Invisible which makes him more than just an animal; noble; glorious; supreme above all visible Creation. Bravery is wild and irrepressible against whatever odds, and counts life and pleasure as nothing in the face of that spiritual greatness, born of God, momentary expressions of Him made by mortal men. We call men reckless when they risk much for things of little earthly importance; names like robber, rapist and rascal when they risk much for evil; and brave when they risk much or all for something worthy.
What bothers me so greatly about the unfair award is what exactly is meant by calling so-and-so brave simply for battling cancer or AIDS. It is a gesture, to be sure, of kindness to someone loved — but it is insincere to any serious person, and insincere about one of the most essential features of spiritual man; about one of the few things truly beautiful about the human race. It’s almost as if we began calling plain girls beautiful, and simple men wise, never stopping to wonder whether by calling things what they aren’t, sensible men will mistake them for otherwise, and God will have been robbed of not only His supreme characteristics, but also His palette and paintbrush (for He paints with many colors). And yet, saying such about so-and-so simply sounds nice. It makes somebody smile with a few simple words and saccharine sentiment — at nothing less than great expense.
The problem with niceness is inherent in the term: that niceness, in essence, is gentle and pleasing — nice –, an attempt to stir amicable feelings in another, to lavish kind words and deeds in the hope of furthering positive relations. It is the advancement of positive relations that gives niceness an almost universal appeal; the impression of good intents, whether or not intents are even actually good (see: flattery, kind-faced swindling). Yet, seeing as how man views better relations as an obvious good, he neglects to remember that the promotion of any good is only truly moral within the proper means: to pursue sexual relations is good, but not with the unwilling; to eat food is good, but never by stealing another’s lunch. And so niceness, being the religion of the modern American — of the coward and the fool, of those who cheer men for coming out of the closet, or for “taking a stand” when that stand is ridiculous — is pursued at the expense of all meaning and goodness, stripping the best things in life (virtue, in this case) of all value, robbing the truly noble and brave and exceptional and bestowing their badges upon the unworthy. And for the sake of what? Sentiment — and nothing more.
These smiles, deceptive to the extreme, yet nearly universally lauded — these pithy, insincere gestures — encourage willful failure in children, grant honor (and when applied politically, eventually subsidies) to useless men, and act as tarnish on the trophies of true heroes. I am not saying we shouldn’t encourage people toward a righteous victory, whatever their circumstances: children have little-to-no skills, but plenty of natural gifts, and if we were to tell them that their paintings of horses look more like Gumby, or that the weeds they picked for us were a poor choice for flowers, we would crush their wings and make flight difficult — if not impossible; for the ingenuities of the mind all begin as matters of the heart. But if we call simple survival bravery; if we crown every loser a winner; if we call the genius common and the common genius, shallow men deep and mediocre men virtuous, then we will not have bestowed glory upon the suffering. We will have robbed mankind of those few bright rays, peeking through the darkened skies of vice and avarice and ho-hum survival; rays which testify of the Providence of God to a war-torn, oftentimes seemingly-abandoned and lonely planet.
Let us be honest about the matter: when our friends and family are suffering stoically, we must rally to their defense and encouragement as much as morally possible. But let us be men about it, and retain the honor of bravery for those deserving of honor, and not simply sacrifice everything beautiful in the name of sentiment.