Literature and Life: Quiet Courage, Silent Strength

How to Start a Fight on the Internet

1. Say something.

Despite my best intentions, I did it.  I posted a poem...on a poetry site.  It was not appreciated.  I was going to write here about the specific poem and my interpretation of it, which is directly opposite that of the person who objected.  But we live in a day when buzzwords, like a switch on a track, often throw people onto one side or another of a discussion, such that ideas are no longer being discussed.  And it is exactly ideas of which we need more, and deeper, discussion these days. 

Tone does not always come across well in writing, especially when we don't know another person.  However, the initial comment regarding the poem I had posted struck me as aggressive and condescending, telling me what is wrong with the poem, rather than what the poster interpreted the poem as saying.... The tone left me with the impression that anyone who thought otherwise would be branded a Very Bad Person.

Indeed, the one person who pointed out that the tone of the original post might squelch discussion was quickly branded several disparaging things, strengthening my feeling that there was really no discussion to be had.

Two questions:

  1. Is this really where we want to go in this country?  To squelch ideas, squelch discussion? 
  2. Do we really want to steadily cut ourselves off from others by dismissing them as human beings, by branding people we've never met with character assassinations?

To the first, I say definitively no.  Isn't the whole point of college, of learning, of reading, of poetry, of arts, to expand our minds, to consider the wide world around us?  To listen and learn?  This doesn't mean necessarily to agree, but sometimes in listening, even if we don't agree, we may understand our own beliefs better, or find something worth having learned, or a new facet or depth we hadn't seen before.  This is less likely to happen, of course, if we condescend to others and/or call them names right out of the gate.  We all pay the price for the loss of what could have been a good discussion.

Regarding the poem in question, it addressed a common and universal experience--the divide between two people who were once close.  How many among us have not experienced a painful separation from someone we loved, a separation we wish could be healed?  And how often do those divides continue because neither party makes the first move?  And why does neither party make the attempt?  In many situations, the answer is fear.

It's a risk to offer the olive branch, not knowing what reception one will get.  It takes courage and strength to lay one's heart open after it has already taken a beating, after hurtful words have been said.  It takes courage to understand that maybe those long-ago words were spoken out of pain and make the first move, knowing that maybe those same ugly words will be spoken again, that perhaps the end result will be more scathing words and ridicule.

good poetry, good poems, courage, strength, civility
In this particular poem, one person, a woman, does try.  She has to all appearances made the effort to contact the man, not knowing if she'll be left waiting.  She speaks first, not knowing how he'll respond.  She is the one to put her heart on the line, to take the risk in order to bring them both to something better.

Courage.  Strength.  There are ideas worth talking about.  What is courage?  What is strength?  Patience, forgiveness, second chances, the humility to admit that she was not entirely blameless either--these take a certain strength, of a kind that is rarely discussed and not enough understood or credited in our present climate and amidst many of our current beliefs.

In the end, there will be disagreement about exactly what does and does not exemplify these qualities.  But doesn't it enrich all of us to think about these ideas, on how they impact our own choices and paths and how we want to live?

Regarding the second question--do we really want to separate ourselves from others this way--my answer is no, I don't want to cut myself off from everyone who holds a different view from me.  Had I seen a poem I disliked or disagreed with, I would have either moved on or asked about it in a way that invited discussion.

CS Lewis, the great divorce, civility
As I read around the internet--as I see people's interactions with one another--I am reminded of the bus stop in C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce.  In this scene, one group discovers a point of disagreement with another and moves away from them, not wanting to be around their kind.  Within each group, another point of disagreement springs up.  Those who were friends, united against those awful Others, now separate further, each concluding that their former friends are not so great after all.  And so on.  Until we have two people applauding each other that they are the only reasonable ones and thank goodness they've moved away from Those Awful People.  Until--not surprisingly--they find a point on which they disagree with each other. 

And each lives alone, in the gray world, rather than in the world of beauty and wonder to which all are called.

We end up with people living isolated lives, because they refuse to be friends with--even to see any good at all in--any person who does not agree with them on every single thought.  Because they jump to calling people names.

Are we making ourselves happier or the world a better place, by continuing to separate ourselves this way?  My life has been deeply enriched by many people who see the world very differently than I do, in some cases to extremes.  I'm grateful I didn't dismiss them because they disagreed with me on one point or another.  And clearly, from their actions and choices, said people have also found something enriching in knowing me.  How often do we miss out on the good that could have come to us, by jumping to conclusions about others?

And this circles back to the poem.  There are times when harmful and ongoing behavior requires us to step back.  But there are many, many times when reconciliation is possible, when both people have had some time to think, to step out of the heat of the moment and finally see both themselves and the other person more clearly: perspectives, attempts, and failures all.  But it takes someone to step forward and risk asking: Can we reconcile?  Can we come together and maybe see if the good we once knew is still there?

This poem recognizes a quiet courage and a silent strength that is all too rarely recognized, understood, or valued in today's world.  And it is in reading such things in literature and considering the possibility of healing broken friendships, that lives, that people, may be healed and change for the better.


  • March 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.  Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert, Dr. Chris R. Powell on Irish literature, and a guest author to be announced.  We'll taste Irish beer.
  • Listen to January's program: poetry and coffee beer
  • Listen to February's program: Russian literature and Russian beer
  • March 20-24, 2017: Indie-Con, an online convention of indie authors in which I'll be participating with guest blogs, Q&A, and critiquing.

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