I started a post about courage, featuring this song, a couple or three weeks ago. It’s still sitting in the drafts folder. The Tragically Hip are a favourite Canadian band from the late ’80s and early ’90s, a time when I, and many other Canadians, considered them the best rock band on the planet. Fully Completely, the album on which this song was released in 1992, is my favourite of theirs, and this song, Courage (For Hugh MacLennan) is the best of it.
The Hip have been nominated for a few Juno awards this week, the Canadian Grammy’s. Reading about that reminded me of the promise to write about the song, about courage. Then, I remembered, I already had.
What follows is a post I wrote nearly a dozen years ago while on an epic cross-China bicycle trip. I can honestly say that my spiritual journey began with events that happened when I was about four years old, but this post, written at thirty-seven, acknowledges one of the most significant waypoints. It is titled, simply, Courage, and it’s safe to say I’d never written anything better. Looking back on it now, I feel no desire to alter a word of it.
Date: Fri, 28 Aug 1998 23:20:00 -0700
07:03 Wumao Hotel, Jiayuguan; Gansu–China :: MO 24 AUG 98
for anything important any of us do
and yes the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
under pressure, under pressure
Courage, my word, it didn’t come, it doesn’t matter,
Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time
The Tragically Hip
From the album Fully Completely (1992)
From time to time I receive email from people who visit the website, from subscribers to this distribution list, applauding the courage I possess to travel so much, for so long, to such difficult places as China and Vietnam.
I laugh a little, inside, at myself. The brave facade. I think about all the moments, all the momentous decisions when a modicum of that apparent courage would have altered my life, significantly, for the better. Love and opportunity lost, the difficult fork not taken, matching ideal and action: the self I want to be hides in the wings, under pressure, under pressure. I live with the consequences.
I was asked once, by a director of documentaries, the question he’d been asking the subjects of his series, “Giving it all up to live at the edge of the world.”
I thought about this for a day, and responded:
finding the courage to be that person.
Slowly, I am finding it–who I am, that is. And sometimes I realize I don’t like the person I find. Change. Change. Courage, it didn’t come, it matters.
Travel, the sideshow. The means. Travel feeds inquisitiveness, curiosity. I look into myself, into the wildly varied realm of humanity, and sort out what is me from what is simply human, and sort out what is simply human from the aberrations we impose upon one another, under pressure, under pressure.
This is the easy part of me, the natural part; this part needs no motivational kick to express. The opposite. I can’t stop myself. From what my parents tell me, I’ve been this way longer than I can remember. I just want to understand, everything. Nomading about the planet’s been the best way to do it for a while. Perhaps that time’s drawing to a close.
Still, as far as courage goes, except for the ideal of being there, except for the poring over the maps, the dreamy fantasies and building expectations for the journey to come, everything leading up to getting on the plane is an annoying hassle…”Oh, man, do I really want to go through all this?” Overcoming obstacles such as these isn’t an act of courage. No. No more an act of courage than getting up Monday morning after slapping the alarm clock and trundling off to work. It’s just work, habit, routine. Then, when the plane taxis out to the runway, you’re golden. The adventure begins, expectations shattered, reality unequaled by fantasty. That’s what keeps you working toward the goal.
So it’s not the inquisitive me who needs any courage. No, its the other aspect of myself I’m finding the courage for. What I am doing right now, this very moment.
for anything important any of us do
People ask why I do this, keep an open journal on the net. Again, they marvel at the courage. Yet I am driven to it. Yes, the cliche: because I must. I always knew I would, in one form or another. The only change–I think, I hope–the reasons underlying the why. No simple explanation for the why, for the change. No simple explanation, I am realizing, for anything.
My journey into adulthood began with a jaded superiority. An angry young man. I knew all the answers. Simple explanations. Simpleton’s explanations.
I didn’t realize how far into oblivion I was. Before I can find the courage to be who I am, I must muster the courage to confront that person, know him and, ultimately, repair him.
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
under pressure, under pressure
Unortunately, the angry young man was a coward, keeping his wisdoms largely to himself, saving his well-rehearsed witticisms to inflict on unsuspecting victims at parties, or share them among other fools of the same mind. He hovered in safe havens. Cowardice kept him a fool for a long time.
Then, electronic bulletin boards. Forums for exchanging thoughts, ideas, witticisms and wisdoms. Largely, proving grounds for cleverness. And he was often a clever fool. I go back and read some of his words from time to time, and shiver. But it caused the fool to confront himself. He thought he was bringing wisdom to others, felt his cleverness and jaded wit were valuable, thought he was finding his courage, but what was really happening, gradually, gradually he revealed himself to a very unappreciative audience…himself. Not courage but self-aggrandising bravado, the brave facade. Afraid to look in the mirror, but there it was, his reflection staring back at him.
He learned to argue well, and that arguing well was not in itself an avenue towards truth. He learned to write fluidly, vividly and realised the damage words could do. He learned, first, what a fool he was, then, that being a fool is undesireable only for those who do not realize they are fools. So much to learn, more than we can ever hope: the most important lesson.
23:03 Wumao Hotel, Jiayuguan; Gansu–China :: MO 24 AUG 98
But so slowly came these realisations. All this honing of wit served only the purpose of winning arguments, of perfecting debating tactics. Few people in the forum were learning anything, at least admitting to mistakes was a rarity. Rarely did anyone applaud another’s opinion or argument, unless they agreed with it from the outset. It was all about establishing turf, like dogs peeing on hydrants. And, overtime, participating in this piss fest grew quite dulling. Politics, I realized, amounted to the same thing with the disturbing consequence that society acted upon the results of these “debates”. Under pressure, under pressure. Living with the consequences.
18:28 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu–China :: FR 28 AUG 98
I saw myself, out of the corner of my eye. I saw the stupidity of the forums, of the people in them, and my own foolishness reflected in my participation. A change of poles. I move from negative, from attacking, from self-aggrandizing, from self-assured certainty; move to positive, to beauty, to harmonies, to the clarity of uncertainty. Enough coverage already of the ugliness, the imperfections, the cowardice, all about us that is darkness and fear. No need to add my own. Move to the light.
Microsoft folding shop in Vancouver dove-tailed nicely with the gradual self-discovery. Gradual.
It wasn’t a completely conscious process, but the world and everything in it has grown increasingly beautiful since April Fool’s Day, 1994–the last day of my Microsoft tenure and the first day of…I’m still not sure what. Amazing what happens when you stop seeking the ugliness, stop cleverly attacking it and the people it attracts, stop praising yourself for your cleverness.
It’s amazing what happens when you use your writing to reveal the beauty you find, when you allow it to reveal yourself to yourself. It’s even more amazing what happens when you keep an eye out for beauty, search it out. After a while the beauty finds you, has a way of coming your way. Instant karma.
Someone forwarded a quote to me from the jacket of Sparring with Charlie: Motorbiking Down The Ho Chi Minh Trail, author unspecified:
It is the job of the travel writer to have an awful time.
The responses I get from across the net indicate the people who read my stuff are most interested in the descriptions of people, the dialogs I have with them and the descriptions of places I visit. Not always in that order, and some folks say they skip the description to reach the dialog.
I think it’s the job of the travel writer to bring the unrequited desires of armchair adventurers to life. Dozens of people have written to say they read me because I have taken on the adventure of their dreams. For a variety of reasons, they cannot–or feel they cannot–make these dreams come true. I’m the next best thing. My own mother wrote to tell me how proud she is of the son who took on the adventure she’s always dreamed of, and brings to life for her. (Never knew that about her dreams.)
Hope that book’s better than its author’s attitude. Otherwise, you’re likely in for an unpleasant, sarcastic read about an unpleasant journey.
Paraphrased from a line spoken by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film Harvey
Well, for years I was clever; I recommend pleasant. Yes, I do.
Cleverness. Held in such high regard. Quentin Tarantino is oh-so-clever. And his world view oh-so-dark. We are seduced by the cleverness and, in time, grow accustomed to the darkness, a dingy uncomfortable sometimes vile home, but home nonetheless.
I tired of it all, recognized the weaknesses in my character which drew me into the fray. Now I try to be conscious of what I’m thinking, what I’m writing; try for the graceful result and, when writing, a loving commentary. Seek the beauty and reveal it.
who brought Tendai Buddhism to Japan .
Pleasantly seeking grace in a time of jaded indifference. Ugliness, unpleasantness, scandal, the sensational: these are easy enough to find in a society which promotes them in its fiction and its current events reporting. The trick, the courageous thing, is to keep these dark obsessions in context, to seek the beautiful, the small perfections, the harmonies, to seek love even while the news explains every night how much life sucks, how awful we are to each other, how horribly we die. The endless divisiveness of political partisanship brings us to the conclusion there is no common ground.
Do not turn to ignorance; do not discount the negative. Instead of pretending these palpable evils do not exist, choose not to participate in them, not to further them by adding your own cleverness to the thread, your own hate, your own disgust, or worst of all your own superiority. Choose instead to overwhelm the horrid with the beautiful, the spiteful with the forgiving, the hateful with the loving. Collect the positive and share it.
Writing and sharing the result, for me no longer acts of courage or even bravado. It is something I do. It’s increasingly less about being clever and preachy, though sometimes that creeps in. Old habits… It is about sharing, but it remains also the opposite of what I initially expected: a means for self-discovery in addition to self-expression. Writing for an audience reduces the inclination toward bull shit, toward the self-indulgent twaddle I’m hoping this post successfully avoids.
As for courage, well, that test comes to us on a daily basis. We fail; we succeed. How well we live depends not only on how bravely we choose, but how well we live with the consequences of the choices we make, courageously or cowardly, under pressure, under pressure. Courage is a hard standard to live by, but the consequences are easier to live with.
~~~ Responses Welcome ~~~
Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better. All the better.
Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.
The Tao Te Ching
trans. Stephen Mitchell