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 OF FATAL COURAGE

   A sense of meaninglessness and absurdity is always ready to steal up on us in our weakest moments, as in the days after the horror at Newtown.  As the initial shock of the tragedy abates, our faith, such as it is, gives us strength. To know that the victims are in heaven is a real solace. But, two weeks after the slaughter, God’s will on earth still seems far from his will in heaven.  We are compelled by whatever is good in us to push back vigorously against every hint of despair.

   One thing we can tap into is the great New England heritage of civic spirit that goes back to before the American Revolution. In the 19th century, not so long before our time, Ralph Waldo Emerson separated out the American spirit from every kind of prejudice and bigotry. Emerson and his Concord Transcendentalists opened the definition of American freedom to include every aspect of life. All religious beliefs and non-beliefs were welcomed, for the first time, around the great American table, as was every level of society, the banker and the ditch-digger and every one in between. Emerson was a century ahead of his time, standing up for Native American rights in 1838, for African-American rights in 1858, and woman’s rights in 1867. Emerson was an early champion of universal education and, if he were alive today, one thing I think he would want to come out of the Newtown tragedy is a heightened appreciation for schoolteachers, who as a group he considered  the most important people in a democracy.

   A teacher can make a crucial difference in a kid’s life. Back in ’67, when I was a senior at Norwalk High, Miss Isabelle Colby was my English teacher.  Back then I was an unhappy kid with a bad case of  teenage angst. Miss Colby snapped me out of my doldrums one day with a quote from Emerson that hit me with a force like lightning: “Things are in the saddle/And ride mankind.”  The quotes Miss Colby knew by heart and sprang on the class at appropriate moments were not particularly inspirational, but rather eye-openers, incendiary for those days.  I can remember the strange sense of elation I felt on another day when Miss Colby, in her earnest Yankee manner, quoted Emerson again: “Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth.”  A year out of high school I was still out of sorts with the world, but thanks to Miss Colby I had continued reading Emerson and was beginning to get the idea that there was a world outside of myself and my problems. That October, with less than a dollar in change in my pocket, I grabbed a jacket and my paperback Emerson and took off on foot into the Connecticut hills.  I got a job giving pony rides at a farm along Route 7 near Kent.  At night I slept in a trailer with no TV or radio, so I read a lot of Emerson. Every day on that job I saw the truth that I read about at night, how “the sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child,” as Emerson said. At least once every year since then, I take a few moments to try and remember the faces of the kids I led around that little ring, and I send them good wishes for their lives; they’re all in their fifties by now. I’m sure Miss Colby would approve.

     What comes to my mind now is Emerson’s advice to us to have what he calls “a fatal courage.” Fatal courage, he tells us, is selfless action based on rational thought.  When the women at Sandy Hook put themselves between the shooter and the students, that was fatal courage in the extreme.  Those women knew what they were about, and it was about love. For the vast majority of us, fatal courage takes the form of mostly minor selfless actions we take that we know we won’t get any credit for. We are all Transcendentalists now, in the sense that those who perished at Sandy Hook have become the new better angels of our nature.

Max H. Peters

 

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