Nevertheless, every now and then we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this kind of action-hero courage in real life; for example, when we witness police, firefighters, or rescue workers putting their lives at risk in an effort to help or save others. Sometimes ordinary people put themselves in harm’s way in an effort to do good, and these displays of courage fascinate us even more. Whatever the case, respect for the physical heroic act seems hardwired into us, and we respond positively to physical heroic acts whenever we encounter them in life.
Even so, courage is not limited to displays of bravery such as saving people from burning buildings or foiling armed bank robberies with nothing but a set of car keys and a half-eaten ham sandwich (I don’t know, use your imagination!). Subtler, less dramatic displays of courage do exist all around us, but these do not get much air time in our world, and when they do, they are usually misunderstood.
Oddly enough, this is the courage that interests me the most. Heroic physical action is but the visible tip of the courage iceberg; the real mass of what constitutes courage lays hidden beneath the water’s surface. This is the realm of mental and spiritual courage, and the actions emanating from here are usually subtle, occasionally ethereal, and almost always misinterpreted by everyone, including the person who performed the act!
Whether in act or thought, these ethereal expressions of courage rarely entail risking one’s physical life, but they often require just as much fortitude – perhaps more because they lack the physical/impulse reaction element present in most physical heroic acts, and instead focus on matters beyond the purely physical. This is the world of spiritual courage. Sometimes spiritual courage occurs spontaneously, a sudden burst that emanates from built up pressure one can no longer bear. Sometimes it is the result of much pondering, ruminating, and second-guessing; the product of a long, drawn-out fermenting process that builds up the self-possession and confidence required to trigger a decision or an action.
Unlike physical heroism, spiritual heroism offers little in the way of spectacle. Acts of physical courage and heroism are like firework displays; acts of spiritual courage, on the other hand, tend to elicit confusion or embarrassment whenever they are played out before an audience. Physical courage relies on being able to do the right thing in the right place at exactly the right time. On the other hand, spiritual courage often manifests in the material world as seemingly doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. People who perform purely physical acts of courage are rewarded with accolades and tributes on the six o’clock news, while spiritual heroes are normally considered dolts who let a great opportunity slip through their fingers.
As mentioned above, superhero displays of bravery are celebrated and admired because they demonstrate the ability to take the right action at the right time. Spiritual acts of bravery are misunderstood and perplexing because they are often perceived as the inability to take the right action at the right time.
From a purely material perspective, spiritual courage always comes at the worst possible time because it involves giving up or rejecting something in the material realm while simultaneously gaining something in the spiritual realm. Onlookers see the former, but are blind to the latter. This is what makes the even the most profound displays of spiritual courage appear like foolishness to the outsider.
Perhaps this is why we don’t always understand spiritual strength when we see it. Perhaps this is why we hesitate to perform acts of spiritual courage ourselves. Because the motivation to do so always seems to come at the worst time, and always involves some display of resolution that either brings no reward or, perhaps, even puts us at risk.
This idea has fascinated me for a long time. I explored it in my novel, in a scene where the young protagonist kills his own chance at being accepted into a university of fine arts in communist Hungary because he simply cannot bring himself to mouth the words the party wanted him to mouth.
The scene was intriguing to write. Viewed from one angle, the protagonist’s courage could not have come at a worse time – his insistence on speaking what he considers truth costs him his chance at fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a celebrated artist. Yet, from a different, more meaningful perspective, the protagonist’s strength of spirit could not have come at a more optimal time. By sabotaging his own attempt to get into the communist-ideology possessed university, the protagonist essentially saves his integrity and, perhaps, his soul.
The scene can be found below. Give it a read if you are so inclined. You may find it interesting.
An usher guided them to the room where the interviews were being held. The selection committee – an odd mixture of a few intimidating party members garbed in military regalia, other stern-looking party members in civilian clothes, and a few weary professors dressed in ill-fitting suits – sat behind a long, imposing table perched upon a dais at the far end of a vast room decorated with ornate Baroque flourishes. Flags of The People’s Republic of Hungary drooped from vertical masts on either side of the table. A thick, oppressive cloud of silver-gray cigarette smoke hung in the air. Reinhardt sat down on one of the collapsible wooden chairs along the side of the room and he waited his turn. Ms. Kálmán sat in an area on the opposite side of the room reserved for escorts and guests.
It did not take long for the head of the committee, a stout, bulldog-headed man whose sweaty, bald scalp glistened even in the dull light, to call upon Reinhardt. The bulldog-man enunciated Reinhardt’s name distastefully, making no effort to veil the disgust he experienced as he forced his lips, tongue, and larynx to emit sounds his mind considered anathema. A lump formed in Ms. Kálmán’s throat; the interview had not even started, yet it already appeared her pupil did not stand a chance. As Reinhardt took his place before the table, she silently cursed herself for her idealism: See how they looked when they heard his name? What were you thinking Edina? You’ll be the laughing stock of the Ministry! You’ll rot in that awful village until you die!
Unlike Edina Kálmán, Reinhardt was calm and composed. He answered the first question the committee put to him succinctly. A few members of the committee nodded in approval. They perused his portfolio, handing it back and forth along the table while he spoke. Ms. Kálmán calmed down considerably after the first question. The response to the next question was eloquent and articulate. After ten minutes the committee was smiling in approval and the schoolteacher sat in her chair beaming as she playfully imagined herself back in Budapest in a senior level position within the Ministry of Education. That Reinhardt would gain entrance into the academy seemed a sure thing – that he would eventually rise and become a great artist became a very real possibility. She closed her eyes and pictured the day her student became famous. That would be the day she would be lauded as the comrade who had inspired a simple, Swabian peasant boy to become a great artist for the socialist cause. As these visions of future glory wafted through the teacher’s head, the committee put their final question to Reinhardt.
“Drixler, my boy,” the bulldog-headed man said. Mysteriously, he no longer experienced any difficulty pronouncing Reinhardt’s name. “In terms of truth, which do you believe is the most capable of expounding the profound truths of life: art or communism?”
Reinhardt pondered the question for a moment before replying slowly and methodically. “Communism. But as an aspiring artist, I would hope the combination of communism and art would ultimately expound the most profound truths about life.”
The committee nodded unanimously. Edina Kálmán smiled and envisioned herself in a spacious flat in the Buda Hills.
Had Reinhardt left his answer there, he would have gained acceptance into the University of Fine Arts and his teacher’s longing to return to Budapest may have become a reality. But the young artist found it impossible to leave his answer there. Even though it was not in his best interest to do so, he felt compelled to add something to his previous statement.
“Of course, as far as truth is concerned, some claim art trumps communism.”
The additional thirteen words Reinhardt chose to tack onto the end of his original answer stunned the committee. The temperature in the vast smoke-filled hall seemed to drop by ten degrees. Reinhardt immediately realized he had struck a nerve. He scrambled for a way to salvage the situation. He quickly realized all he needed to do was negate the notion contained in his previous statement by adding: but I would claim these individuals do not truly understand the enlightened foundations upon which communism is built . . . or words to that effect were all that were required. He opened his mouth. The right words were there, dripping from the tip of his tongue like honey, ready to feed and mollify the agitated, buzzing committee. But for reasons he could not even begin to comprehend, his brain refused to let his tongue rattle them off. He closed his mouth, cleared his throat, looked defiantly at each member of the committee and, to Ms. Kálmán’s utter horror, recited the underlined passage in Szentvölgyi’s old copy of Art of the Ages: “Art,” he said in a firm, steady voice, “is one of humanity’s highest callings. It is a higher thing than politics or economics. It marks the total expression of the creativity and freedom of the human spirit and is also one of the few paths through which mankind can transcend its earthly circumstances and approach the Divine. This is the essence that makes art eternal.”
Higher than politics or economics. Freedom. Creativity. Human spirit. Divine. The words exploded around the committee like bombs and rendered them shell-shocked. Reinhardt instantly joined the ranks of those noble, tragic souls who seal their own doom by expressing their opinions fully and sincerely. Put another way, Reinhardt committed the unforgivable sin of not knowing when to shut up. Edina Kálmán’s jaw dropped in disbelief and she nearly toppled from her chair. Only one person appeared to approve of what Reinhardt had said: the ancient professor at the end of the table who might have started his tenure at the university when Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The professor could not suppress a grin of endorsement after he heard Reinhardt’s words and, for a brief second, the old man’s eyes sparkled. But when he glanced down the length of the table and saw the frowning, disapproving looks, he quickly remembered himself. The grin vanished, the sparkle faded, and he hunched forward again, assuming the aura of a dying star slowly collapsing in on itself.
“Thank you, Drixler,” the bulldog-headed man said in an agitated voice. Reinhardt’s name had become difficult to pronounce once again. “That will be all.”
“Idiot!” Ms. Kálmán screamed.
The schoolteacher slammed the sliding door of the train cabin shut and glared at her pupil. Following the failed interview, she quickly aborted her promise to show Reinhardt the sights of Budapest and marched him back to the train station. She exchanged their tickets for ones good on the next available train. With new tickets in hand, she called ahead to Pécs and arranged to have the car meet them earlier than expected. Once they were on the train, she dropped down on the seat opposite Reinhardt, lit a cigarette and spat an angry plume of smoke into her student’s face. “We never rehearsed that answer!”
“They asked me a question about truth,” Reinhardt mumbled. “I told them the truth.”
“Truth?” Ms. Kálmán threw back her head and emitted an odd noise that fell somewhere between a screech and a cackle. “Do you have any idea what truth is, moron? Truth is whatever the Party tells us! Nothing more; nothing less.”
“That’s not truth.”
“Aargh, you make me sick!” she cried. She stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray and lit another one. “I hope you’re satisfied. You humiliated me before ministers, professors, party members. I am the laughing stock of the whole Ministry of Education. I’ll never be able to show my face in Budapest again! I’m lucky they didn’t arrest me on the spot!”
“I’m sorry,” Reinhardt said sincerely. “I meant no harm.”
The schoolteacher’s eyes became as wide as dinner plates and she wagged an accusatory finger. “Sorry? You’re not sorry. You did this on purpose.” Her tone became muted – conspiratorial. “You plotted this for months. It’s all part of some sick scheme. Revenge. The only reason you came to Budapest was to make a fool of me!”
Reinhardt leaned forward and touched Ms. Kálmán’s forearm. He had meant it as a wordless apology. He hoped it might soothe her, but the touch of his hand made the teacher recoil in disgust.
The train lurched forward and pulled out of the station. Ms. Kálmán looked longingly at a few ugly, nondescript buildings as the train rolled out onto the open tracks. “Well, you have succeeded in embarrassing me; however, I can wring some satisfaction out of this awful day, too. It pleases me to know your talent has no future here. You can paint until the flesh falls from your fingers, but you’ll never be a recognized artist in Hungary. You’ll end up a swineherd like the rest of your primitive ancestors.”