Bravery Has Many Faces

In 1884, Auguste Rodin was commissioned by the city of Calais to create a sculpture commemorating the salvation of the city by six prominent citizens who offered themselves up for sacrifice to King Edward III during the Hundred Years War. The story goes that Edward laid siege to the city for over a year before the starving populous was forced to request terms of surrender. Edward demanded that six of the city’s leaders emerge from it barefooted, with nooses around their necks and holding the key to its castle. And so they did, fully expecting to be beheaded. (As it turned out, their lives were spared when Queen Philippa, Edward’s wife, intervened on their behalf.)

Five hundred years later, Calais was expecting something grand to celebrate this event. Instead, when the veil dropped on Rodin’s creation, it revealed a sculpture that portrayed the Burghers of Calais as real people. Worried. Scared. Old and tired men who did not really want to be put to death as martyrs for their city. And yet, they stepped forward.

A Burgher of Calais (Jean d’Aire) by August Rodin.

It seems to me that society doesn’t appreciate this kind of bravery any more today than it did when it criticized Rodin’s depiction of it. The only definition of bravery that people are willing to recognize in the face of a challenge is someone who glories in the risk and bellows full-throated opposition to it. But I think Rodin understood that a hero is not someone who simply resists all the time, or who is somehow genetically immune to the anxieties of peril. Rather, it’s that perilous moments happen to ordinary people, and it’s how people meet these moments that determines whether or not they are heroes. Sometimes the brave thing is not resistance, but acknowledgment. The Marines did not hold at Chosin. They withdrew. Even Sitting Bull and Geronimo understood that there comes a time to lay down your rifle.

Of course, we all like triumph. If we could write the stories of the challenges of our lives, that’s how they would end. But we can not. There is perhaps, a little motor that ignites in our cells against our will, or the fragile engine of a dream that sputters to stillness despite all of our careful attentions. And when these things happen, acceptance of the inevitable is neither cowardice nor weakness. It is instead to look straight on at something that we don’t want yet can’t change, and to meet it with grace.

Drop Cap by Jessica Hische.

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