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What he meant, I guess.

  • Posted on: 4 January 2014
  • By: readersbooks

One of the last phrases my dad said to my mom before he drifted off forever in his hospital bed was to "be brave." I've been pondering that for over ten years now. Did he really mean, be brave? Or just act brave? And is there a difference? Was "be brave" some kind of secret expression between them? He and she came out of a different era, of course, when times were tough and a big premium was placed on character and bravery and such. That's how they got through the Great Depression and World War II, by being brave. That's what we believe.  


But what does that mean? I've concluded, after much thought, that being brave, or acting brave, which is just pretending to be brave, has a lot more to do with enduring. Bad things happen and you soldier on. And you do this not because of some mystical inner quality of strength you possess, not because you're an American and Americans are rugged individuals, but because, in the end, you have no choice. Oh, you could curl up and die, I suppose, and there are a few very frail souls who do that when they lose their dog or their spouse or the stock market plunges. Most of us though, thankfully, have enough moxie to still get up the next morning; we drink our coffee, glance at the newspaper, go about our lives. Are we hurt? You bet. Is there a hole left that will never be filled? Probably so. But we trudge on, and that's a blessing, not just for ourselves, but for civilization at large.


Whenever I consider bravery I am reminded of that glorious passage in Catch-22, where Captain Nately (I think that was his name), a 20-year old pilot, a kid from Yale, is sitting in a whore house in Rome, talking politics with a 107-year old Italian gentleman. The old guy says he is a very moral man, that when Mussolini came to power he was all for him. Then, when Hitler's tanks rolled in, again, he raised his arm in salute. Now that the Americans have liberated us, he shouts "viva America!" Nately, the idealist, thinks this is appeasement, opportunism, or at best, mealy-mouthed double talk. Don't you stand for something? Wouldn't you rather die on your feet, he asks, than live on your knees? The old man gently corrects him. No, no, he says, you live on your feet and die on your knees. And right after their chat, Nately strolls out the door and gets killed by a sniper.  


Bravery is what gets you through to tomorrow. We can stand for all kinds of causes, but bad things happen all the time, and life, as any alcoholic can tell you, is a day by day event. In that sense, we are all brave, I suppose. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is just keep your head down and dig a deeper foxhole.