Why do we – why do I – celebrate the past so much? There is a resurgence of interest in the first and second world wars. I know that I am drawn to the fact that ordinary people endured and acted with incredible courage in the most testing of circumstances. Some had a naturally daring spirit, and those people are particularly celebrated as heroes – they seemed to have a reckless bravado which propelled them into exultant action and drew others with them. But for me, that exceptional sense of defiant daring is not what I celebrate most. The majority of people did not have that positive desire for risk, that kind of madness. Even so, they did have a sense of adventure, they did experience the thrill of risk and action and wanted to come out of it well, whether they survived it or not (I speak for my father here, as I think that’s how he felt about it). They knew they could die at any time, but pushed that fear down and got on with things, doing the best they could and believing completely that what they were doing had to be done and couldn’t be shirked. The first world war saw thousands of people facing certain death day after day, for months and years, living in the most apalling conditions while in the trenches, bearing the loss of their comrades, the ever-present trauma of that warfare, and the hellish conditions. Staving off despair in the those circumstances – all that was courage, the courage of those days, the courage they were all called to embrace.

But this week particularly I been wondering about courage today and what it means for us to be courageous. Let’s not think that courage belongs to the past, or to those who serve in the armed forces or rescue services today. It belongs to all of us. It has been shown in France this week, and wherever there is an attack on freedom, there will be the courage that rushes in to help victims, combat the threat. It’s shown in the Ebola outbreak where people continue to put their own lives on the line to work in healthcare in those areas. This, too, is easy to celebrate. There is the required courage to speak out and not be silent when something is happening that one knows to be wrong; that is encumbent on all of us.

There is also courage shown in daily life that is not so easy to celebrate because it’s harder to see, and ‘celebration’ seems a difficult word. The shining courage of someone like Kate Gross, who faced dying of cancer in her 30s with such grace and openness and authenticity. The courage of those who get on with their lives after suffering bereavement; of those with long-term illness, or paralysis, and of those who look after them every day; of those facing loneliness in old age: these also are trenches where nobody wants to be; where the endurance seems to have no end in sight, and where, often, there is a sense of loneliness. Living hopefully and positively here is also a kind of warfare: courage on a slow fuse. Let’s not forget that courage of many kinds is around us in many guises; perhaps not to be ‘celebrated’ but recognised, acknowledged, respected: let’s support it in others where we can, and live it in ourselves where we must.

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Filed under first world war, Second World War, social history

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