Thursday, June 01, 2006

Of courage and beestings

I think about sin a lot, which is odd enough in a UU. But recently I've been thinking about virtues.

Virtue is, if anything, more complicated an issue than sin is, IMHO.

For example, just about everyone will agree that courage is a good thing.

As Screwtape, the Senior Devil in The Screwtape Letters put it:

We [ in hell] have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy [God] permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame....

But in thinking about it, I've realized that the issue is more complicated than just "courage is good."

Bill Maher lost a television show because he offended people by pointing out that the 9/11 bombers were not cowards. In the days after 9/11, the President was frequently calling the terrorists "cowards," presumably because, as Screwtape notes, cowardice is universally despised. You can say a lot of things about a man who purposefully crashes a plane that he himself is inside, but that he's a coward probably shouldn't be one of them. (This is not to say that Maher's comments were the sort of thing I would want my TV stars saying if I were a network executive. They were appallingly timed. But he was still essentially right that the president was trying too hard to frame some already-hated people in the worst possible light.)

But it's not just that courage can be used for evil. I don't think it counts at all unless you're using it for good.


Last year, I was having lunch with a friend and her kids. One of the kids was stung by a bee in the restaurant. My friend took the crying kid on her lap. The bee, still in shock herself, fluttered down onto a napkin on the table. I sat there watching it for a moment, increasingly nervous. I'm terrified of bees.

Finally, she said, her tone of voice understandably snippy, "It would be nice if SOMEBODY got rid of that bee." And then she picked up the napkin, bee still inside, and held it out to me.

There were other people at the table who could have done the bee wrangling, but for whatever reason it was my job.

The judgement was implied. If I didn't get rid of the bee, I was clearly too lazy to help someone in need and inconsiderate of a mother who so clearly needed to be tending to her child. I still sat there and looked at her for a second until annoyance creased her face. Angry bee? Friend who thinks less of me? It was a tough call. As my friend sat there, kid in one hand, bee napkin in the other, her expression grew increasingly hateful.

Finally, I took the bee. Holding the very edges of the napkin as if it contained highly explosive material, I took the bee outside, set it down on the table and watched, quivering, until it finally flew away.

As I walked back in to the restaurant, one of my friend's other kids went "Ha, ha. You're TERRIFIED of bees."

No duh. Who wouldn't be? Bees are scary.

But my point is that carrying out that bee, though it involved facing one of my fears, was not an act of courage. I didn't do it to help the kid, or even really to help the mother. I did it because as a grown woman, I was embarassed not to, and for that matter too freaked out and stupid to say "Ummm... I'll hold the kid if somebody else gets that bee. I hate bees" which probably would have been socially acceptable.

I don't think something you do for someone else's approval can really count as a courageous act.

When I was a small child, maybe ten years old, my brother sat next to a beehive and got something like twenty bee stings. As my parents were taking care of him, I noticed that his blankie was still out next to the beehive. Being a well-meaning if not terribly bright child, I went running out and grabbed the blankie, calming him considerably and getting six or eight bee stings for myself.

But I really was doing it because Jason was upset and it was the only thing I could think of that would make him feel better. It was worth facing down some bees to help him out. That was courage.

Of course, the six or eight stings and the resulting hives I got (I'm mildly allergic to beestings) is how one develops a bee phobia as a child that haunts one into adulthood.

Nobody ever said virtue was easy.



PeaceBang said...

It was courage, but it was also love.

I love bees.
I pet them.

This is a little-known thing about me.

indrax said...

I just wrote this

but PB: How do you pet bees?
I can understand why they might tolerate it, because they get brushed by flower parts for pollenation, but I can't imagine how to get your hand to them without frightening them off.

Do you pretend to yawn? ;-)