So far in this series of posts on what it take to be a real man, I have asserted that the following requirements must be met:
1. A man must be male
2. A man must be a man of his word
The next thing I will assert is that real men are brave; they possess courage. Courage, of course, is not the absence of fear, but the strength and ability to persevere in spite of it. We often think of courage in the context of physical danger, and rightly so. The man who puts himself in harm’s way for the sake of others is the model of courage. But there is another type of courage; the ability to stand up for what is true and good in the face of opposition. Outside of the military and civilian security forces, men are not often called on to put their lives in jeopardy. Most of us, however, face these other challenges on a daily basis, regardless of our vocations; moral battles that require no less courage than those that are physical.
In fact, moral battles can be more difficult to fight and require more courage than their physical counterparts. The enemy can be difficult to define. It is not necessarily another human being and it cannot be removed from the battlefield through injury or death. The enemy is often subtle, advancing and striking multiple times before we know that we are in a fight, before we even know it is on the field with us. All too often, the enemy is our own self, the weaknesses that are exposed when we encounter a challenge in the form of a temptation to do something we know to be wrong or neglect to do something we know to be right.
Making matters worse, the field itself is almost never clearly defined. There are no stakes in the ground that mark its boundaries, no lines are drawn up with enemies facing each other, no attacks at the first light of dawn. The battlefield can be the place where we feel most comfortable, least on our guard, at a time when we are most tired and least capable of resisting. But if the enemy and battlefield are so difficult to define, how will we recognize them when the time comes? How can we hope to be brave and do what must be done?
This may sound overly simplified, but in order to succeed on the moral battlefield, a man must possess morals; he must know right from wrong. Courage is nothing without a moral compass, a conscience, to direct and inform it. A man may act based on the strength of his convictions in the face of tremendous opposition (which might be praiseworthy of itself), but if his cause is not just, can it truly be said that he acted courageously? Prowess on the battlefield may be more a sign of cruelty than courage.
A conscience alerts a man to moral danger and enables him to properly identify the enemy, particularly when it is himself. But to work effectively, a conscience must be keen. It cannot be dulled or deadened from disuse, neglect, and compromise. The conscience must be honed daily through careful listening if it is to be worthwhile. Further, it must be based on an absolute standard to be of any use. Like a physical compass, it must point to something outside of itself or the traveler will become hopelessly lost. When a man listens to his conscience and then acts accordingly, he exercises both conscience and courage.
So what, exactly, does that look like? Probably nothing like the great and momentous conflicts we might like to imagine for ourselves; stirring, eloquent speeches in the halls of state, or a dramatic defense in a courtroom. It is far more likely to be something that seems mundane. Examples abound. How often do men find themselves in the company of friends and colleagues who go for a quick laugh by taking cheap shots at the expense of their wives and children? Or maybe they attack an unpopular co-worker who is socially awkward. Perhaps they openly lust after an attractive woman, or they endorse adultery or abortion. These are the battlefields where moral courage will be tested and proved.
It takes the same courage to face times of life that are tedious: to go to work every day to a job that is no longer interesting or fulfilling but keeps bread on the table. To stay and work in the marriage that is going through a long dry spell, as most marriages will, rather than run away to “find oneself”. To continue to work with and pray for the son or daughter that has rejected you and everything for which you stand, rather than abandon them to the whims of society. As Charles Bronson said so well in that great scene from the Magnificent Seven, when a little village boy calls his father a coward for not fighting the bandits:
“Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054047/quotes?qt=qt0345611
The more important a thing is, the more difficult it can be to exercise the courage necessary to stand up for or against it. But in order for our courage to be proved we must act. We must defend our marriages and families, those weaker than ourselves, and the institutions on which society is built against anyone who attacks, no matter what the setting. If we do not, we are cowards and unworthy of being called men. But the more we stand up for what is right, the more our consciences are sharpened and our courage strengthened. We may never need to lay down our lives to save a fellow soldier, but when the time comes we will be able to put our reputations on the line to defend our wives and children. There are no promises, but it is likely that the man who has stood firm in the mundane skirmishes will be ready if and when the great battles do come. He will not shrink from his duty; he will not desert the field of honor. His courage will not fail him in the time of need and, win or lose, he will quit himself like a man. And though the battles I speak of may seem mundane, they are of eternal significance and will stand next to the greatest of desperate charges when weighed in the great balances of time.