“You sniveling coward!”
“You lily-livered, chicken-hearted milksop!”
“You gutless, spineless, yellow-bellied sissy!”
The thought of being on the end of such accusations can stir paralyzing fear, mortal shame, and/or wrathful anger. On the flip side, we would readily hurl such insults at anyone who refused to defend the weak, the powerless, or the innocent. In civilized societies, there are few things quite so vile as a fellow human being who seeks to protect his own hide to the detriment of others.
Yet we can all relate to doing it from time to time, skulking or slithering away from a situation where we thought we would surely end up with a dismissal notice from a belligerent boss, a black eye from the playground bully, or a knife in the throat from a purse-snatcher. Survival is instinctive for a reason. And even the survival instinct can be stronger than our own screaming conscience or the fear of familial or societal ostracism.
The reason we try to protect our own backsides and mind our own business is quite simply because we fear death or anything that rings of a near-death experience. Losing a job can provide as much stress as the unexpected loss of a family member. As a youth, who hasn’t felt that confronting our childhood tormentor wouldn’t put us in an early grave? And we would be insane if we looked forward to stepping between a villain and his victim whether in a bar or a backstreet.
As strange as it seems, this is why suicide bombers are so effective in fulfilling their mission. They don’t fear “crossing over”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think suicide bombers are courageous, I think they’re unfortunate fools who have been fed afterlife propaganda that Stalin would be proud of. And they’re faith is misplaced. For faith is what truly drives anyone to perform acts that put their heart, their mind, or their life in jeopardy.
Now most of us don’t live on the edge. Yes, a few of us (and I don’t mean me) have jobs where every day we put your life on the line–police officers, firemen, military personnel, kindergarten teachers. I know of at least one of you who works for homeland security. And I am SO grateful for each and every one of you and I salute you for your courage. But the closest the rest of us get to spilling our blood each day is a paper cut.
And while the closest I’ve ever gotten to living on the edge of anything is the edge of my yoga mat, I wonder if it might take more courage to stand up to a boss who wants you to lie to a client than it does to stand up to a mugger with a club. Maybe it takes more guts to stay with an unfaithful spouse than it does to stay in a room with an armed kidnapper. And I’m sure it takes more raw nerve to trust your kid with the car than it does to trust your employee with the same vehicle.
That’s because trust makes us vulnerable. We’ve all been hurt, burned, or deceived and we know how much fun that is, so we’re a little reluctant to stick our hand back in the fire. Some of us are so fearful of being vulnerable that we don’t trust anyone anymore. Sure, we may have a great partner, a loving family, and supportive circle of friends, but we cut mental notches into our forearm every time someone forgets our birthday or takes out their bad day on us, and the wounds are far from healed.
There should be a show entitled “Are You as Tough as a 2nd Grader?” My youngest child could star in it. She’s a tomboy with more scars on her legs than I had at her age. Yeah, she can scream louder than any kid on the block when she first gets hurt (usually because she wasn’t wearing shoes—again). And there is no end to her overwhelming joy when the new cut gets wet in the bathtub. But after that, the wound scabs over and she becomes more fascinated with the healing than the fact that she got hurt. And after awhile she doesn’t even remember how she got the new scar in the first place. She’s back outside racing around like a Tasmanian devil—without shoes—again.
But her random bloodletting is nothing compared to the way one of the neighborhood boys treats her. Too often he forgets she’s a girl and crushes her delicate feelings like rose petals beneath his Reeboks. And while she’s gotten wiser to his ways and is less likely to become fodder for his footprints, she still likes playing with him.
And while my child’s typical short-term memory issues can make me sound just like my mother—you really do have to say “Put your shoes away!” a thousand times—there is something glorious in her lightspeed absolution. Like every other parent on the planet, I lose my temper with her and my other kids from time to time, usually in the mornings when I’d swear my clock had legs instead of hands. But once I return to my senses and apologize for my egregious behavior, my baby-girl leaps into my arms like the infraction never happened. Her forgiveness is immediate and absolute.
I want to be like my daughter. I want to be so excited about life and the grand adventure of it all, that getting hurt is only a pit stop. I want to be so focused on the joy of the road ahead that pain is merely a passing blip on my GPS. I want to be so exhilarated about the prospect of any new ground to traverse, any new walls to climb, and any new chasms to cross, not because of the broken bones I might incur, but because of the potential signatures on my plaster cast, the cool new bruise I can brag about, or the distinctive scar that screams to the world I’m living life to the full.