Friday, June 5, 2015

A few words on courage

I once saw a college student stand down a tank, armed with nothing but a knapsack.

That was 26 years ago today in Tiananmen Square, and the image is famous now, a period piece that at once defined a place, an event, a point in time and perhaps humanity itself. You looked at that image, and you did not need anyone to define courage for you. The image did that, and at the top of its lungs.

Not so, apparently, the picture of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce, on the cover of Vanity Fair.

In the days since ESPN announced it would give the newly minted Caitlyn its Arthur Ashe Courage Award, the backlash has been intense, and back of it is the inevitable ugliness that seems to be our lot in America today. It seems hardly anyone can advocate for Lauren Hill -- the Indiana teenager who died of a rare pediatric brain tumor in April, and who spent the last months of her life giving of herself instead of indulging herself -- without also diminishing Jenner.

I happen to think Lauren Hill should have been the "well, duh" Ashe recipient, too. But the trashing of Jenner has to stop.

It has to stop because courage is not always as dramatic as that image from Tiananmen Square, nor even the life of a 19-year-old girl who got to play, and score, in a college basketball game last fall, fulfilling a lifetime dream as her lifetime grew short. If you can watch the YouTube clip of Lauren Hill doing that and not be moved to tears, you are a stronger human than I am. Or you're not really human at all.

That said ... what Jenner has done took enormous courage, too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like, having to live your entire life knowing it was a lie on the most basic level possible. Everything the former Bruce Jenner did in a very public life -- everything -- was designed to keep that lie, and the pain that came with it, at bay. And yet the lie and the pain were always there.

There is courage in soldiering on through that. There is. But instead of acknowledgment, Jenner has been called "mentally ill," been accused of a "publicity stunt," been told what he's faced in his life is no big deal because, after all, he's rich and famous, and wealth and fame takes care of everything.

Which is, of course, the most absurd notion of all.

Here's what I know: Courage does not come in one flavor. The most disturbing trend I've noticed in the last few days is an insistence that isn't so, that courage is somehow the sole province of Lauren Hill or firefighters or police officers or military personnel who find themselves in harm's way.

Or college students standing down tanks.

To hell with that. To hell with the idea that if you acknowledge one man's courage you somehow diminish someone else's. To hell with the idea that if you think favorably of Jenner, it's somehow a slap in the face to the Marines who found themselves 1,000 utterly exposed yards away from a spit of Central Pacific land called Betio, and somehow kept on wading toward shore, anyway.

Or kept on functioning through the hell of Iwo, Peleliu, Okinawa, Omaha Beach. Or rescued a buddy from the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. Or took a bullet for a fellow officer in a shootout.

One does not cancel out the other. And the reason one does not cancel out the other is because this isn't a contest. We all have our challenges, and we face them the best we can. Some of us fail. Some of us succeed. The latter should always be celebrated.

Or at the very least, not looked upon with contempt.

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