27 February 2009

The meaning of "courage"

If I see one more article connecting the phrase “Patrick Swayze” and “courage,” I am going to barf.
In case you haven’t heard, the former “Dirty Dancing” star (and “Donnie Darko” standout) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer recently, and has been making himself known on the talk-show rounds. While I sincerely hope that Mr. Swayze, whom I have nothing against personally, as I do not know him, makes a full recovery, I take umbrage at the notion that what he is doing is particularly “courageous.” In order to beat cancer and stay alive, he’ll have to fight it. He doesn’t have a different option to meet that goal. Of course, he could give up, and be all whiny about it, which would also not be courage.
Let’s get one thing straight – courage is what you delve into when you make a decision to do something dangerous when you have other options and could choose to remain safe. Courage is charging a Japanese foxhole to throw a grenade in it. Courage is running into the burning Twin Towers to face immolation. Courage is making a picture-perfect water landing on the Hudson River in a jet (which is highly, highly NOT recommended in any manual). Courage is NOT about choosing to wear a daring dress to the Oscars.
What has happened to the word “courage” is the same thing that has happened to the word “survivor.” You are a survivor if you made it into one of the Titanic’s lifeboats. You are a survivor if you had to eat the dead from a plane crash to survive. You are NOT survivor simply because you’ve won a game show of that title (are you listening, Richard Hatch??). You are NOT a survivor simply because you know all of the words to the Destiny’s Child song and can somehow relate to it.
In a world which, until recently for us anyway, was predictable and soft, throwing around words like the two I wrote about probably gave us a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Personally, I think our great-great-great grandparents, the ones who fought a hard life after likely seeing at least one person they knew die during childbirth, would laugh at our notions of what is considered “courage” and “survivorship” today, and eat wimps like us for breakfast. Most of what passes for either these days is likely a laughably pale imitation of what the actual words used to mean.
I think, as the world spirals downward chasing the dollar, that we will see a bit of this begin to change, as more and more Americans start to lead lives closer to the conditions of their great-great grandparents. It may be a bleaker existence than the ones we would have hope for, but I’m looking on the bright side – I look forward to the day when “courage” is defined as something larger than Jennifer Aniston’s attempts to find a stable mate after she turned 40 years old.

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