Sometimes the challenges that life throws our way will be over quickly. Succeed or fail, we know that a finite quantity of bravery is expected of us.
In Sergio de la Pava’s Lost Empress, a football owner addresses her players before the last game of their season.
“I once had someone reduce the film of a game to just those seconds when the ball is actually alive and in play. You know what the result was? Eleven minutes.
A three-and-a-half-hour football game reduces to eleven minutes that actually decide who wins or loses. Are you going to sit there, knowing all the work we’ve put into this season, the bloodshed, the bones snapped, and tell me that you can’t bind yourself to your brothers and collectively outperform another group of men for just eleven minutes?”
Eleven minutes during which they’ll either win or lose – except that by now everybody knows that modern football destroys players’ brains. The consequences will linger long afterward. The team’s quarterback acknowledges as much before the game:
“I don’t care if I’m drooling in a corner in ten years as long as that [championship] ring’s on my finger as I do it. It’s all I think about.”
Like Socrates lifting poison to his lips, the quarterback knows that he is choosing to end his life: This is not about his body; it’s more fundamental, his mind. Medically, he should not participate in even more more play of football. But he has the courage to face it. It’s only eleven minutes, after all. Or three-and-a-half hours. Still, only a single game’s worth of pain and suffering to attain glory.
In the fourth quarter’s waning moments, Harris, the quarterback, makes one final play:
Taking the ball in just his right hand he brings it back and throws it as hard as he can, screaming in agony as he does since it feels as if his arm’s just been detached from its socket.
The millisecond the ball is released a Cowboy defender launches himself forward helmet-first into Harris’s face mask. The face mask gives way on impact and the defender’s helmet goes right through into Harris’s face to shatter his nose, bounce his brain off his skull, and resect substantial parts of his lips.
The referee jogs towards the goal line to make the call that will immediately decide the winner as there is no instant replay. After a seeming eternity he raises both hands and signals touchdown and a Pork victory of 23 – 22.
Harris is unconscious on the ground, it’s not that he will never remember this, it’s more that he never experienced it in the first place.
Interwoven with the quarterback’s story of willful self-destruction is another version of courage. An impoverished parent whose life seems to be in shambles resolves that she will pour herself into raising her kid right, no matter what it takes.
… she’d pinpointed this one thing, a sure path to meaning. There’s a spiral that has to stop. A person formed by shit parents becomes a shit person and by extension another shit parent who forms a shit person until you just end up with shit everywhere. A life spent accomplishing only one thing can maybe be justified if that one thing is significant enough.
She could therefore literally decide that the sole purpose of her breathing was terminating that spiral currently pulling [her son] Donnie towards its diminishing circles.
She could do that, in essence forfeit her life. But it would take a strange kind of courage. … This wouldn’t be a stint in the can, it would be a life sentence.
To succeed, she’ll need to be brave for more than three-and-a-half hours. Good parenting is exhausting. In the first few years, my spouse and I felt that each night at bedtime we were struggling to toss our bedraggled bodies over the finish line – and then we’d have to wake up and do it again.
Eleven minutes for glory? A committed parent is looking at approximately twenty years, no cheering fans, and no assurance, ever, that you’re even doing it right. A parent needs to be brave in the sense that David Foster Wallace described in The Pale King.
‘By which,’ he said, ‘I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood. You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it.
The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all–all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. An audience.’
He made a gesture I can’t describe: ‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’
He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking. ‘True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care–with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world. Just you and the job, at your desk.’
Wallace fully expected to have an audience for his words, but even then, bravery was needed during the lonely years spent composing – indeed, the tragedy here is that Wallace’s courage abandoned him just as he wrote this passage.
A parent, too, has a very limited audience. Usually the only people watching are the children being parented, and, given the way our brains work, children will inevitably forget most of the moments that you share. But you’re creating the emotional pallet that will color the rest of their lives.
Lots of parenting feels like drudgery, and it takes concentration to do right, and it matters.
According to Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a human parent thus seems, of all [animals], the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her. And yet, for reasons inherent in [our] evolutionary history, she has been … the one most fated to do so. Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.
Or there’s Michael Chabon, in Pops, describing the burdens he knowingly undertook when he and his spouse decided to raise children.
“Put it this way, Michael,” the great man said, and then he sketched out the brutal logic: Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became, and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time.
And yet. Even if this unnamed great writer were correct – which seems highly dubious, since most writers need to live in order to escape self-absorption – Chabon probably made the right choice. If our species is going to persist, we’ll need another generation. If our species is going to thrive, we’ll need children who were raised well. We’ll need people to bravely accept all that parenting entails.
I’d like to think that my own courage hasn’t failed my children yet. Luckily, it’s reinvigorated when they smile.