Contemporary culture encourages cowardice as the human norm. This new emphasis, including the decade-old insistence on “safe spaces” at colleges, is something more dangerous than anything we might encounter otherwise.
Not long ago, I heard a psychologist saying that the most important thing in his practice is the safety of his clients. Understandably, patients in such a setting must know that they are safe. As we all know, there must be a fundamental security in family situations for children to thrive, just as growing plants must be protected in order to grow. Homes characterized by brokenness and emotional violence have terrible effects—though even here, I would argue, not inevitably, not by some law of necessity. Some people overcome the worst kinds of abusive family situations and become strong out of some powerful resolve of character or strength of grace that will not succumb to psychological destitution.
What is worrisome in contemporary culture is that the need for emotional safety in therapy seems to be extended to the culture at large. No matter what proclivity or tendency of character one might have, it is now assumed that the society is responsible for making its expression safe. No one must be endangered; no one should feel threatened in any way about anything—well, unless you stand for traditional understandings of the human good.
For Aristotle, moral life begins with the virtue that is the basis of all the other virtues: courage. In other words, he does not assume that safety is the usual condition of human life, but rather that dangers of various sorts characterize the world. To have the virtue of courage means to have the habit of self-possession in the face of danger, a habit built up by repeatedly being in unsafe situations—and Aristotle was thinking primarily of battle. This year’s graduating seniors at Wyoming Catholic College have all read Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the narrator describes the extraordinary caution of the First Mate, Starbuck: “courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions.… [I]n this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted.” Starbuck has the habit of courage. There is no reason to seek out dangers unnecessarily because dangers will always come, especially on a 19th-century whaling voyage.
Over the weekend, my wife and I watched an old Western in which John Wayne plays a rough character named Hondo who has spent five years in an Apache tribe. When he encounters a woman abandoned at her homestead with her young son, he starts teaching her some necessary lessons the hard way. When she tries to feed his dog some table scraps, he stops her and tells her that the dog has to find his own food. Similarly, when the woman’s son cannot get to the other side of the pond to fish because he does not know how to swim, Hondo picks him up and throws him in the water. The boy splashes around and then safely dog-paddles to the other side to his great delight and the woman’s horror. (Obviously, she falls in love with Hondo.)
It is easy to see that contemporary culture encourages cowardice as the human norm (not that we would want to hurt anybody’s feelings about it). Certainly, we expect the government to ensure our security from external threats, but this new emphasis, including the decade-old insistence on “safe spaces” at colleges, is something more dangerous than anything we might encounter otherwise. What are the habits we are forming? In the hour of greatest peril, our sensitivities and hurt feelings will not prove to be especially useful. Winston Churchill in May of 1940 did not send a note to Hitler explaining how wounded he felt, but rather he appealed with a grand forthrightness to the courage of the English people.
The graduates we are sending out into the world from Wyoming Catholic College have, I hope, not been pampered too much. Without being put at unnecessary risk, they have climbed sheer rock faces or rappelled down them, kayaked mountain rivers, and backpacked for weeks in the backcountry. They have read no textbooks that carefully mediate ideas and give trigger warnings and explain hard words away and make them politically correct and safe; instead, they have taken on the works of the greatest thinkers of the Western tradition and argued through them, both in the classroom and outside it. They have not been taught that whatever might be wrong with them is someone else’s fault, but rather they have been encouraged—and courage is the key—to face themselves before God in the true safe space of the confessional. May they thrive in the dangerous world they enter.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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