Brave Hearts

Sarah Richards
October 1, 2017

Brave Hearts

Maybe it’s my training as an anthropologist, but after the boom in popularity of super hero movies and sequels and prequels, and then the Star Wars furor, I’ve been thinking about how much popular culture helps to shape moral codes and therefore ethical behavior. Yes, much is learned from our parents and families, but what were the stories they read to us, what were the movies and videos we watched together, what are the characters who expressed those positive attributes that we consciously or unconsciously took as role models?

As we think about what it means to be a people of courage, it’s worth examining those influential characters current and past, because our times call for courage and imagination. It certainly may feel that our times call for the superheroic kind of fearlessness, but I would argue that what we really need is the ability to feel fear and keep going. A completely unscientific survey of CUF Facebook friends confirms this view: the majority of favorite fictional models of courage have no extraordinary powers: Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Jo March (Little Women), Ma Joad (Grapes of Wrath), Miss Celie (The Color Purple), Ralph (Lord of the Flies), are all regular humans or hobbits dealing with life’s perils and dangers (I know that the Hobbit’s perils are otherworldly—I’ll get to that). Even those characters who are exceptional, like Harry Potter and friends, feel and express fear, and act in spite of it.

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion is a perfect example of mistaking fearlessness for courage—because he is afraid of nearly everything, he thinks he therefore lacks courage: “I could show my prowess, be a lion not a mowess if I only had the nerve” he sings. But then he joins Dorothy, Tin Man and Scarecrow on their trip to Oz, and helps to defeat the Wicked Witch. Did those of us who have seen the movie learn along with the lion that he showed bravery all along the way, even while he was expressing his fears. The Cowardly Lion—and really all of the characters people listed on Facebook—remind us of a simple but often ignored truth: courage is relative, and must not be judged from a single viewpoint. I’d like to test that theory, what are some other fictional characters from your childhood or more recently who have exemplified courage for you?

So courage is relative—Jo March’s bravery is not the same as Miss Celie’s. Someone dealing with severe depression once told me, “I know it’s no big deal to you, but I’ve brushed my teeth three days in a row—that’s big for me.” Depending on the context, the same intestinal fortitude is required to get out of bed in the morning as for subduing castle guards. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins faces the fearsome dragon Smaug, in the movie Moonlight, the boy Chiron’s dragons come in the form of unrelenting, violent bullies and a neglectful, emotionally unstable mother. Chiron’s courage isn’t shown in battle or outwitting a human version of Gollum, but in enduring pain and figuring out how to survive, and eventually accepting love. Chiron is a character, as Richard Gilbert wrote, “who live[s] one day of pain at a time, who see[s] the long path of suffering and do[es] not despair[i]” though to be more accurate, I think he did despair at times, but kept a small flame of hope buried deep inside, and kept going. The world of a shy gay black boy growing up in the macho drug culture of 1990’s Miami depicted in Moonlight is about as far removed from my middle-aged, straight white woman world of present-day Carbondale as the magical forest in the Wizard of Oz, but I was deeply affected by, and even inspired by Chiron’s quiet, anguished bravery.

Richard Gilbert’s prayer-poem begins,
“When we are overwhelmed with the world
And cannot see our way clear,
When life seems a struggle between tedium and apathy
Or frenzy and exhaustion[ii]

—these days it seems to me that the frenzy and exhaustion mostly comes from constant messages about threats to our safety, comfort, status—threats from those people in those places portrayed as most different from ourselves and our social location: the very wealthy or the very poor, alt right or antifa, people of whichever religion, whichever race, whichever sexuality or gender identification that seems to be “opposed” to our own. And here I see a secret power of the fictional characters who inhabit times and places vastly different from our own: their invitation to imagination that makes it possible for us to be affected by and even inspired by their courage—we recognize qualities we wish we had, if we only had the nerve. If we can take heart from Bilbo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen, and Kylo Ren, and Chiron, might we be able to make connections with our real life neighbors whose realities differ greatly from ours?

So one thing we can take away from these varied characters is the reminder that courage is not one thing in one moment, but can take different forms and change over time. Therefore, let us look for characters of courage where we least expect, with whom we have the least in common, ask ourselves, what are the dragons they are dealing with. And sometimes it turns out the dragons have fears to face down, too.

Another observation from my unscientific poll of favorite brave fictional characters is that courage is relational. It is the rare heroic character who is not supported or assisted—literally encouraged—by someone or several someones along the way. When he is invited to go with the others to see the Wizard, the Cowardly Lion asks, “wouldn’t you feel degraded to be seen in the company of a cowardly lion? I would.” The simple act of being accepted by the group gave him confidence. Facing all of the dangers involved in getting to Oz, and then vanquishing the Wicked Witch together, as a team, was transformative for the lion and the others. Bilbo, Harry Potter, and many of the other characters mentioned in the Facebook poll have similar experiences of growth through taking turns bolstering each others’ nerve. The movie Moonlight shows Chiron at three moments in life, as a boy, a teen, and young man. Chiron is an only, and very lonely child, but his unlikely mentor, the drug dealer Juan, and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa get him through his toughest moments as a boy and adolescent.

So another lesson we can take away from our favorite fictional characters is the reminder that having faith in each other catalyzes courage. And one last thing. At the beginning of my reflection, I said that our times call for courage, but also right here in our Fellowship there is a demand for imagination that takes us beyond our fears. Our Board of Trustees has set us on the path of creating a new vision, crafting a new mission, and strategic plan for our future. This is our version of going off to see the Wizard, or to slay a dragon, and go beyond survival to a thriving future. In addition to gathering wisdom from our past, the best practices of other congregations, and other sources, we will benefit from those fictional examples of courage who spark our imagination. Therefore, let us look around for stories that tell of communities of courage. Let us look in the most unlikely characters, most unlike ourselves to recognize that courage is not fearlessness, and therefore it is possible for everyone, real or imagined.

“May we recognize courage in ourselves and our companions;
That is not dramatic, that elicits no fanfare;
That commands little notice by the world,
That is forgotten and taken for granted….
May we know such courage
And quietly celebrate its presence among us.[iii]

Amen.

[i] Gilbert, Richard S. “The Courage of Patience,” https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/courage-patience accessed 9/29/17.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.