As I begin to write this, I’ll confess the reason is that our dog died today. It is how he lived, however, that has spurred me to put words to paper. His gentle and gallant dignity, the quiet, uncomplaining way he went about his days, the bone-deep loyalty he demonstrated and inspired, and the abiding trust he put in us to do our best by him have stirred parallel memories.
He was almost fifteen when he left this world, a considerable age in human years. His last three years saw the beginning of his decline, and it was his courage in the face of his physical difficulties that I have been thinking of. He lost most of his teeth, he began to smell, he had a severe bout of vertigo we thought would kill him, and his back legs began to fail him precipitously.
Throughout it all, not a whimper. He was patient and accepting as we brought him downstairs three times a day, slung somewhat precariously in a turquoise flamingo-patterned beach towel, his own portable hammock. And now I ask myself, am I similarly courageous, and how do we as humans measure against his stoic bravery?
We all know that a response to that question is both difficult and multifaceted given the spectrum of human behaviour — some people manage physical pain superbly but are helpless in the face of grief. There are those of us who demonstrate resilience in the face of enormous challenges but are brought low by a paper cut.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines courage as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” How about just getting up in the morning to face the day ahead? For some, this can be an unsurmountable hurdle as they struggle with addiction, depression, poverty, abuse, war, sickness, and all of the evil life can throw at us.
For many, our days are less fraught with grave issues, but like every human being, we face crises that can still break us or help us grow and become stronger. If we are lucky, life may follow the path my parents promised me when I was very young. They would predecease us at a grand old age. We, too, would also live to that same grand old age or even longer, with enough financial security to accompany our senior years, our loving children there to support us emotionally, and our friends only permitted to die at around the same time as us, preventing the loneliness that the very elderly often deal with.
But it’s never that easy, is it?
Even the luckiest of us will deal with some combination of physical and emotional challenge — a child with debilitating issues, a grave illness, financial ups and downs, injustice, untimely death, broken relationships, broken hearts, decrepitude and its attendant indignities — it’s an infinite list and a soul-rending one.
How we react to those tests of our character is really the definition of courage — to know fear and despair and to push through it. Viktor Frankl, author, psychologist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, said in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
It is that resilience and its corollary that we see in the everyday bravery of so many of our fellow humans — the patient suffering of families awaiting news in hospitals, the sacrifice so many make who work mind-numbing jobs to provide for their loved ones, those who immigrate to new countries, living with chronic disease and pain, children’s first days at a new school, holding one’s head up after defeat and starting again, taking a moral stand against the powerful and dangerous — how very brave humans are, so often, and so many of us.
Since childhood, my own litmus tests for heroism have been miles apart in their scale, danger and ubiquity. Despite having had too many needles in my life, I never get over my fear of them (trypanophobia); I grit my teeth and bear it — OK, perhaps I whine a little. Walking into a crowded room still requires enormous pluck on my part. And heights — well, not all fears are easily conquered. The really big tests of our valour and fortitude, however, I am not sure if I would pass.
Almost a decade ago now, I attended a dinner honouring two people who, at enormous personal risk to themselves and their families, had sheltered Jews from Nazi persecution. For their bravery, Israel esteemed them as Righteous Among the Nations. I spent the evening wondering if I could do the same, a test I pray devoutly never to have to contemplate.
We may know people who display similar mettle. Those who see their children off to war — impossible heroism. Those who fight in wars - even more difficult to fathom the courage required.
But it is the smaller myriad daily acts of bravery that we all perform that are perhaps the greatest evidence of our shared humanity. Think of the fears we manage to survive — the fear of failure, of loneliness and rejection, of not finding a job, of marching towards old age, of spiders and all manner of bogeymen.
In many ways it is the ordinary, the everyday that demands the most of us. I go back to the simple courage of an animal whose trust in all humans guaranteed his failure as a guard dog, but who did not dwell upon his infirmities, who gave love with no conditions attached except water and food, and who knew when our own bravery needed the bolstering effect of his immense and selfless devotion. His name was Mouton.