Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Two more days in Neurodramaville and I've been thinking a lot about courage. I actually think about courage quite often due to the nature of my work, and I'll get back to that aspect in a moment, but reading Lydia's post from the weekend (please see below) brought the broader, more political and social aspects of bravery and acts of courage to mind.
Acts of courage, to me, are small everyday occurrences that may go unnoticed, but never feel small to the person doing them. Daily I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to come to any hospital's ICU and see the person you love lost and unrecognizable by the residue of trauma or disease. Hell, it's hard for me to come in day after day to the barrage of bad news and worse outcomes and I get to escape home to my own life, laundry, and grocery lists.
It requires courage to drive in everyday and walk through those automatic sliding glass doors with a threadbare wrapping of hope wrapped tightly around your shoulders, newly washed and pressed overnight, reciting over and over, "Today he'll wake up. Today the fever will be down. Today he'll be able to get off the ventilator." And it requires courage to come back the next day and the day after that to hear the recital of lab results, CT scan readings, neuro exams all describing a slow spiral in the wrong direction. I know, families come in because that's their family member. Of course they're going to keep coming in, but you'd be surprised how many people don't. Or, they come in drunk at ten o' clock on a Wednesday morning. It's not called "Liquid Courage" for nothing.
Families come in to sit at the bedside and in the hard, orange plastic chairs out in the waiting area for hours, days, and weeks because it's the right thing to do and because of love, but neither of those reasons makes it any less painful or exacts less of a cost. And to pull courage out of one's coffers is easier when it's the socially accepted way to act. We all know it's hard to live through this experience of a critically ill loved one. That is why we, as a society, try to be supportive. Neighbors bring over casseroles in GladWare containers. Local hotels give discounts to hospital families. We give money and poptops to the Ronald McDonald House. Coworkers give of their PTO(paid time off)bank.
I'm reading a book in the evenings, Blitz, The Story of December 29, 1940, by Margaret Gaskin, about the most damaging night the city of London endured in the three month long bombing by the Germans. Courageous citizens? You bet. A London writer was quoted at the time:"When this is all over, in the days to come, men will speak of this war, and they will say: I was a soldier, or I was a sailor, or I was a pilot; and others will say with equal pride:I was a citizen of London." Yet this bravery also came with the support of neighbors, newspapers, radio, and government. And it was pragmatic.
"Most of us were scared stiff the first week," a member of the Women's Voluntary Service confessed in a letter to a friend in America. "We didn't show it much but we damned well were. Then I suppose the 'soldiers of the front line' business came over us and we found there was no point in being scared and also it was a bad thing to be, so we stopped being."
What about acts of courage that are not socially acceptable? What drives two young black athletes to raise their arms in support of the civil rights movement in their moment of great personal achievement at the Olympics? Why not enjoy their victories and use what celebrity they gain to work towards their political/social objectives at a more appropriate time and venue? Why rock the boat? Why start up the drama?
It's fatigue. Rosa Parks has said or written somewhere that she wasn't intending to make a civil rights statement that December day in Montgomery, Alabama. She refused to give up her seat because she'd worked hard that day and she was tired. And that's as it should be. She was tired. People reach a tiredness that doesn't allow them to move one more inch, make one more concession, make nice over one more insult.
The talking heads are throwing the word courage around in reference to Ted Kennedy's speech last night at the Democratic Convention in Denver. Stirring. Historical. Sentimental, yes. I had tears in my eyes watching this lion of the Senate give one of the last public speeches in his career and to hear him echo his eulogy from Bobby's funeral. Courage to hand the torch to the new generation of Democrats? No. That's survival and wanting to see your work live on. It would be courageous to acknowledge the man who made this day possible by signing into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But to praise Lyndon Baines Johnson would not be politically prudent. And LBJ's acts of courage still go unnoted even today, August 27,the day of what would be his 100th birthday.
Not such a large thing to do. A simple,short sentence in a sea of sentences. The time it might take to sign a signature to a piece of legislation. The time it takes to say, "No, I won't be giving up this seat today." The time it takes to raise an arm in the air. The time it takes to allow the sliding glass doors to open and take the first step through them. Small acts doing what's right whether or not it's the right time or right place.
"I've just handed the South to the Republicans for fifty years, certainly for the rest of our life times."--LBJ