Yesterday’s emission drew a fair amount of email. Most of it was concerned – specifically, concerned for me. Sorry, Gentle Readers. I didn’t mean to make anyone think I’m about to explode from excess angst or keel over dead from terminal hangnail. I’ve still got at least one foot out of the grave, possibly more.
However, those responses, plus some contemplation I did this morning, caused me to realize that I’d partially missed my mark. That can happen to an opinion monger when he lets his sense of mission overcome his sense of obligation and responsibility.
General George Patton once said that it’s not the keenness of the edge on the bayonet but the glitter in the attackers’ eyes that breaks the defenders’ lines and sets them to flight. Patton was an apostle for the importance of nurturing an army’s fighting spirit: the courage and confidence that comes from the conviction that your side will triumph, come what may. His impressive record as a battle commander suggests that we should take his ideas seriously.
There’s a huge lesson in there for a commentator such as myself. It’s one I should heed all the time, rather than just now and then.
When times are bleakest – when the forces arrayed against us look most formidable – is the time when fuel for our fighting spirit is most needed. Certainly it’s important to know the size and disposition of the enemy’s forces; of that there can be no dispute. But that’s not a reason to neglect the maintenance of a positive outlook. What soldier, believing that the battle is already lost, would move forward with the courage and confidence Patton sought to inculcate in his troops? Indeed, what soldier wouldn’t think to run and hide?
Whatever justification we can find for a spirit of optimism should always be kept close. It’s when a battle against seemingly overwhelming opposition looms that we need it most.
The second of my thoughts this morning is a kind of restatement of an old military maxim: A strong sense of confidence is always misplaced. That includes confidence in one’s sense of mission.
A mission is something you feel you’ve been charged to do by a higher authority. The highest imaginable authority is, of course, God, which has given rise to a lot of snide remarks, assorted wisecracks, and one of Bob Dylan’s less meritorious lyrics. A man who believes he has a mission frequently allows himself means and methods he would regard as unacceptable under other circumstances. As is so often the case, C. S. Lewis says it best:
"I must do what I think right, mustn't I?" she said softly. "I mean—if Mark—if my husband—is on the wrong side, I can't let that make any difference to what I do. Can I?"
"You are thinking about what is right?" said the Director. Jane started, and flushed. She had not been thinking about that.
"Of course," said the Director, "things might come to such a point that you would be justified in coming here, even against his will, even secretly. It depends on how close the danger is-to us all, and to you personally."
"I thought the danger was right on top of us now..."
"That is the question," said the Director, with a smile. "I am not allowed to be too prudent. I am not allowed to use desperate remedies until desperate diseases are really apparent. It looks as if you will have to go back. You will, no doubt, be seeing your husband again fairly soon. I think you must make at least one effort to detach him from the N.I.C.E."
The terrible danger inherent in such a course should be sufficient to counsel us to caution about “our mission,” and to counsel anyone who speaks of such a mission to temper his statements with an appropriate residual skepticism – of himself.
Don't walk so tall
Before you crawl,
For every child
Is thinking of something wild:
Every Christian lion hearted man will show you.
[Robin, Barry, and Maurice Gibb, a.k.a. The Bee Gees]
In summation, though I feel I have a duty to delineate the dangers our society faces and to “rally the troops” for the present battles and the ones certain to follow, in the future I’ll try:
- To be more optimistic about the outlook for these United States; and:
- Not to take myself too seriously.
Which brings to mind a story from Paul Dickson’s The Official Rules:
A veteran British diplomat had a favorite way to put down a pushy or egotistical junior. The diplomat would call the young man for a heart-to-heart talk and quite often at the end of the talk would say, “Young man, you have broken the Fifth Rule: you have taken yourself too seriously.” That would end the meeting...except that invariably, as the younger man got to the door, he would turn and ask, “What are the other rules?”
And the diplomat would smile serenely and say, “There are no other rules.”
[Conveyed to Dickson by Governor Pete du Pont.]
As my pastor loves to say at the end of Mass, please use and enjoy the graces God bestows upon you this day. For we know with perfect certainty this and nothing else: it will never come again. Chin up. Be well.