Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Courage by Thomas Lane Butts

AN ENCOURAGING WORD written by Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

A few years ago I started a column with what I characterized as an old adage: "A brave person dies only once, but a coward dies a thousand times." A learned friend and retired teacher of English literature gently reminded me that this was a "corruption" of a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Being thus informed, let me give you the setting and the exact quote.

Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, has had a dream in which her husband was murdered. At Caesar's request, the priests sacrificed an animal which, upon being cut open was discovered to have no heart. They send word to Caesar to stay home on this fateful day, the Ides of March, which the soothsayer had already warned him about earlier in the play. Caesar muses: "What can be avoided whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?" If he is already fated to die, how can he avoid it? He proceeds to encourage his wife with the now-famous lines, finding it strange that we fear death so much, when death is inevitable in every person's life. Caesar has been a strong and brave man, and now he will not waste precious hours of his life anticipating tragedy.

So, he says: "Cowards die many time before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once." (Julius Caesar,II,ii,32-37)

When fear is mingled with the instinct of self-preservation at the point of a crisis, sometimes, in a fleeting moment, we lay the basis for a life-time of guilt. When we do not pass our own test for courage, or measure up to the minimum standard of what is right, we unchain a ghost that prowls the cellars of our souls for life. Most of us could easily find an example in our personal lives, but to save you from the pain of such search, let me give an example from literature. You can look for your personal example later.

In his novel, The Fall, French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus, paints a frightening word-picture of a man haunted by a fleeting act of cowardice in his past. Time and geography bring no relief. The story is recalled by him one rainy evening in a shady Amsterdam bar, where he has sought refuge from his past.

He was a respected Parisian lawyer, a pleader of noble causes, secure in his self-esteem and immune to judgement - he thought. A silent listener at the bar hears his confession of the painful moment when the ghost in his life was unchained.
"That particular night in November, I was returning to the West Bank. It was past midnight, a rainy mist was falling and there were few people on the street. On the bridge, I passed behind a figure leaning over the railing and seeming to stare at the river. On closer view I made out a slim young woman dressed in black...I went on after a moment's hesitation. I had gone some 50 yards when I heard the sound - which despite the distance sounded dreadfully loud in the midnight silence - a body striking the water. I stopped without turning around. Almost at once I heard a cry for help, which was repeated several times. Then it ceased. The silence seemed interminable. I wanted to run, and yet did not. I told myself I had to be quick and then an irresistible weakness settled over me. 'Too late...Too far', I told myself...then slowly, in the rain, I went away. I informed no one."

This was the terrible failure of nerve perpetrated on the Seine River in Paris, which he believed flowed from water to water to await him wherever he went in the whole world. Nowhere he went was far enough. On the last page of the novel he returned (either physically or in his mind) to the scene of his cowardice and cried out into the night: "O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us."

James Russell Lowell put it clearly. "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide; in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side; some great cause, God's new messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right, and the choice goes by forever, twixt that darkness and that light."

Each day in small, but important, ways we prepare ourselves for that moment in life where we shall die once the death of courage, or live to die a thousand times a coward. (You may email Dr. Butts at tolabu2@frontiernet.net )

AN ENCOURAGING WORD written by Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

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