June is a sneaky month of transition. It is the month wherein we celebrate a slew of graduations, enlistments and marriages. Paradoxically, it is also the month we take vacations, celebrate Father’s Day and look forward to warmer weather. We simultaneously celebrate profound rites of passage and look forward to benign distractions of non-commitments, of whimsy, of pleasurable summer pursuits.
When we open the backpack this month, we find a mortarboard, camouflage fatigues, ancient books of philosophy and not-so-ancient-poetry, a baseball, camping supplies, baby pictures, contemporary journals, beach towels and a clock that seems to be broken.
And, binding this motley crew together, we find courage, the essence of June’s philosophy.
Courage is an oft-discussed philosophical and poetic concept, as is evident in “The Republic,” when Plato allots a great deal of press to Socrates’ conversations about courage. Its importance is highlighted when he heralds courage as one of the four virtues, taking its place among wisdom, moderation and justice. Courage is the virtue of the warrior class, naturally, and Plato argues that it is an essential part of a functional, healthy society.
In Book IV, he states, “(I)t is this part which causes us to call an individual brave, when his spirit preserves in the midst of pain and pleasure his belief in the declarations of reason as to what he should fear and what he should not.”
Courage, according to Plato, is evident when a person commits to “fulfilling his decisions.” This is an uncomfortable definition, because it challenges our idea of bravery. As Maya Angelou so aptly waxes, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.” She cautions we “can be anything erratically; kind, fair, true, generous, loving ...” but, “to be that thing time after time, you need courage ... it allows you to see yourself in other human beings.”
Bravery is not simply the bravado of chest-thumping machismo, or, as Plato argues, an attempt to “enslave and rule over those whom it is not fitted to rule,” upsetting “everybody’s whole life.” Rather, bravery is the courage to protect without stifling, to care, to encourage, to accept responsibility for our own actions and our willingness to recognize our duty to other individuals and to our communities.
Courage is found within the person who, time after time showed up to beat the odds and become the first in her family to graduate. It is found, not only in the child going to camp for the first time, but in the mother who, time after time, has had to find the courage to practice letting him go. It dwells within the heart of the enlisted soldier or marine getting on the bus to go to boot camp, but it also dwells in the collapsing breath of the parents who see him or her as a toddler in fatigues. Courage is found within the father who determinedly redefines what being a man is so his daughter — and his son — will grow up with all the possibilities and opportunities they deserve. Bravery comes in the form of pursuing a dream and it comes in the form of allowing others to pursue theirs. Even if the clock seems broken and time stands still, or moves too quickly, or even repeats itself, courage is being kind, fair, true, generous and loving time after time. Bravery is, as Angelou says, finding the “courage inside yourself.”
Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote, in her poem “To fight aloud, is very brave,” we may not know the stoic courage people carry within their personal months of June, the courageous rites of passage people quietly make through the snow, while the others enjoy the arrival of summer’s sunshine. She writes:
To fight aloud, is very brave -
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe -
Who win, and nations do not see -
Who fall - and none observe -
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love -
We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go -
Rank after Rank, with even feet -
And Uniforms of snow.
The poets and the philosophers will continue to grapple with defining courage, of recognizing bravery, because it is a central part to understanding our human condition, and therefore, critical to defining our values. If we can heed Plato, Angelou and Dickinson’s advice, we will remember that beneath every helmet or hat — bike, baseball, mortarboard or military — there was a courageous rite of passage necessarily completed to don it; an act of putting on and a courageous of act of letting go that took place.
For every decision to show up, time and time again, whether in the nursery, the school, the hospital room, the sideline, the parade or the graduation, there exists an act of courage. In the comfort, the encouragement, the pain, the cheer, the salute or the celebration, there exists an act of courage. And, we must trust, in plumed procession, this is where the angels go.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.