What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
When I sit down to decide what I am going to write about, I am often taken aback by the sheer multitude of options. You almost have to be an octopus to be able to point to all the various areas the Republican Party and their fundamentalist Christian allies are trying to screw Americans.
You could look at it like a defender of the Alamo and go full-bore Davy Crockett and say, “We’re going to need a lot more men” or Custer: “Where the f*ck did all those Indians come from?” Or you could take the glass half-full approach and say, “Well, what we have here is a target-rich environment!”
But this is one of those cases where more is not better. And that’s the rub: how does a person face each day in the face of so much horror?
Attitude and how you come at a problem count for a lot. As military masterminds through history have known, battles are won and lost before they are fought. Napoleon’s maxim was that the moral is to the physical as three is to one. And he was right. If you believe you are going to win, you have a much better chance than if you go into a thing assuming you have already lost.
On the street they call that mojo. It works the same way. As Colin Powell put it, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
Of course, we can’t get all giddy. Hitler thought will to win had more potency than 3-1. He thought an iron will to triumph made numbers irrelevant – technology too. But bullets will kill even the confident. There is something to be said for sober reflection, for pragmatism. And for taking cover when the shit hits the fan.
There is a good and sound reason we have sayings about Murphy’s Law. The great tragedian Aeschylus said “In war, truth is the first casualty” but lets not forget what you planned to do versus what actually happened, or as 19th-century Prussian military theorist Helmuth von Moltke said, “NO BATTLE plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” Things seldom go the way you planned. Look what happened to the Greeks at Troy. Odysseus could certainly attest to the folly of over-optimism.
So how do we keep our equilibrium? How do we stave off despair? A religiously devout person might believe fanatically in a God and what he has been told about that God. The Crusaders tried this with their fragment of the True Cross. They thought as long as they had that artifact with them, they could not lose a battle (Paul of Tarsus’ “If God is for us, who can be against us?” put into action).
Muslim ruler Saladin showed them at the Horns of Hattin (1187) that even a super-positive mental attitude can take you only so far. Arrows and swords are real too. So we need to find a positive place from which to proceed, not one that is negative but not one that is unrealistically hopeful either. Our lesson here is that if our enemies want to pray us away, let them try.
Still, it is not easy to keep hope alive under a constant barrage of attacks, when it seems the whole world has gone mad, when you are living through what so many people said could not happen here. When you see it happening, you understand better the average German of the late 20s and early 30s. It can happen; every culture and society has people like that.
Is it depressing as hell? Yes. Even reading the news can become a chore. Writing about these events, having to delve deeper into them rather than on a superficial level, can scorch the soul. I deal with that all the time. There are days I just have to get up and walk away and pick up a good book in order to escape from the world I am forced to live in.
Leave it to J.R.R. Tolkien to have said it best, putting these words into the mouth of the wise wizard Gandalf:
“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”
And Tolkien should know, having lived through the trenches and the First World War. You do what you have to do and you don’t have to be John Wayne – or Frodo – to do it. As Ronald Reagan said, “Heroes may not be braver than anyone else. They’re just brave five minutes longer.” Which again brings us to a sort of Gandalfian place of “stay the course.”
We would all like to be part of those lucky generations who see turbulent times skip them by but those times are few and far between across the span of centuries. They are rare enough in fact to attract special notice. As Gibbon said, when writing his masterful Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan,Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.
Kids, even if that’s true, even if Gibbon was right, that’s a whopping 84 years – barely a modern lifetime.
We can’t all live in Golden Ages, obviously. Most of us can’t. We’re not.
Which takes us back to the question of “what do you do?” Some people rushed to do their duty during the Civil War while others skedaddled to Canada, a popular move during the Vietnam War as well. Much is made of the “Greatest Generation” but not all of them were so great either.
There have always been those who like George W. Bush or Mitt Romney, skedaddled.
Lord of the Rings is a good story because it is about a small but brave band that decided skedaddling was not for them, a group that, unlike Bush and Romney, did not believe they should send others to do what they were not themselves willing to do. That is an element in all heroic fiction and in all heroic ages of the world. Who wants to read about those who didn’t have the courage of their convictions?
So happy with our lot or not, as Gandalf says, we have to decide what to do with the time that is given us. Or, to put it another way, to decide each day to be a good person, to show bravery and steadfastness to evil’s despairing face. It’s that or curl up in a hole and hide there till you die, and I don’t want to be remembered for that. I’m sure you don’t either. In the end, I think, as with courage, better a surfeit of optimism than a lack.
Image from MemeGenerator.net
Updated 9:41am with Eisenhower quote