I’ll accept the parroting as fact. I’ll also accept as fact to whom our shortcomings are confessed influences what is confessed. A confession to an outsider is sure to short shrift the ordeal, confining the confession to that deemed acceptable to middle-class, compliant morality: short temper, impatience, impracticability, procrastination, self-deprecation, and the most obnoxious, if not most supercilious, perfectionism. The noblest of shortcomings all, I suppose, so let’s flaunt them. What’s the harm?
Between the ears, we should and can be more forthcoming when our conscience nags. The little voice nudges us to confess to that which would have us squirm if confessed to an outsider: disputation, belligerence, egotism, duplicity, captiousness, narcissism, pettiness, covetousness, jealousy, hypocrisy. If our conscience nudges toward greater revelation, we might even conjure dilettantism (the genteel euphemism for quitter).
But even during these quiet, solitary moments of candor, one shortcoming will remain cornered in the attic of remembrances. No matter how long it has etiolated and withered, the shortcoming refuses to dissipate to nothing, though we so wish it would. I speak of cowardice. No other shortcoming stirs us to recoil and sigh when it creeps into our consciousness. And when it creeps to make its presence known, we get to work lashing back with deflection, denial, rationalization, and bargaining.
A familiar Shakespeare quote on cowardice gained its currency for good reason – truth. “The coward dies a thousand deaths,” penned the famous versifier, “brave but one.” Does the coward die a thousand deaths because having cowered once, he is now conditioned to cower time and again? Or, is he doomed to spool that one cowardly act a thousand times through his mind. Both, I suspect.
But what is this horrible thing, definitially speaking. Too often, it is defined incorrectly. Cowardice is too frequently misinterpreted. You think you recognize it, but what you recognize is the opposite of what it is.
For instance, cowardice is incorrectly spliced with the reprehensible. The 9/11 atrocities were no acts of cowardice, nor was the Boston Marathon bombing. The acting pedophile is no coward, nor is the acting murderer. The acts are reprehensible, to be sure, but they are not cowardly acts. They are acts of will, immoral will, but will, nonetheless.
The battlefield is famously fertile ground for exhibitions of courage and cowardice. The game of kill or be killed being of the highest stakes. On the World War II stage (And why not stage? Many of the war’s famous battles have been labeled theaters.), Audie Murphy is the lauded protagonist as the courageous grunt; Eddie Slovik, the notorious antagonist posing as the cowardly lion. But is singularly and highhandedly massacring a squad of the advancing enemy always the epitome of courage? Is refusing to participate in a terrifying play penned by buffered poseurs proof of cowardice?
I think otherwise. The antonym is true.
To join the fray willingly is one matter, to be conscripted into it another. Murphy was the willing, if not fanatical, participant. So pumped full of patriotic verve after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was unwilling to wait the additional year required before his services would surely have been summoned. Like the restless five-year-old anticipating Christmas morning, Murphy had to get on with it now. So eager to join, he persuaded his sister to provide an affidavit that falsified his age.
Where Murphy aligned with the mainstream, Slovik opted for the fringes, accumulating a lengthy rap-sheet of petty offenses before he reached age twenty. A rap-sheet limits prospects. It limited Slovik’s in many ways, but in one way for the good and one he assuredly appreciated. The lengthy rap-sheet classified Slovik as unfit for military duty, thus reprieving from a war he so desperately sought to avoid.
Safety promotes carelessness, and Slovik got careless. Deluding himself that he was safe, Slovik veered toward middle-class morality. He took a steady job. He married. Adopting more of an Ozzie and Harriet existence meant Slovik had found religion in the eyes of the draft board. He was reclassified as fit for duty and was drafted toot sweet. (Had Slovik known the straight-and-narrow led to perdition, surely he would have remained on the fringes: Perhaps he would have lived with his betrothed instead of marrying her. Perhaps he would have committed a couple more larcenies for good measure.)
To kill every German that crossed his path was Murphy’s nature. To avoid being killed was Slovik’s. Both acted according to his respective essence. I argue that Slovik’s act was the more courageous of the two, for his was sure to incur opprobrium and ostracism. The battlefield he so feared was created by old men who refused to participate themselves. He was afraid to die, and so were they, so Slovik could have reasoned to deaf ears. Instead, he naively bared his “cowardice” soul to everyone in earshot: He would run if sent to the front. Slovik must have been unfamiliar with the aphorism about talking things to death.
“It takes a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army,” observed Soviet General Georgy Zhukov. By Zhukov’s accord, Slovik was the brave man in the U.S. Army. He was also the unluckiest. Confession can be good for the soul. In Slovik’s case, it also proved fatal to the corporeal being. Though thousands of U.S. soldiers had deserted during World War II, Slovik was the sole deserter executed for doing so. Slovik’s act to save his hide cost him it. A brave man, indeed.
I assert Slovik was no coward because he acted according to his wants within the realm of civilized society. If I say yes because I’m afraid to say no, and no is in my interest, I am a coward. The same is true in reverse. The conscripted soldier who wants most to retain his freedom but agrees to conscription to avoid opprobrium and ostracism is a coward.
Cowardice isn’t solely the province of incompatible action. Inaction can be cowardly. You’re offered an employment opportunity in another city you’re sure would advance your career. You reject the job for the safety of the familiar. A friend recommends a safari in Kenya, you’re intrigued, but you reject it because of an irrational fear of the unfamiliar. You have a business idea you want to implement, but the uncertainty and risk associated with the new purges the thought from your mind. You have an idea for a book. You write a couple of chapters, frustration and apathy kick in, you jettison the whole project. You want to ask that woman for a date, you don’t for fear of rejection. Acts of cowardice all.
Cowardice can also be the product of inertia or dereliction of duty, not acting as promised, both stated and implied, such as protecting your wife’s honor and body from assault. (Had Murphy deserted, he would have been the coward.) These are acts you know you should perform, that you contracted to perform.
All cowardly acts lead to regret, which tortures the mind to fantasize about what could have been. So, we ask the octogenarian what he most regrets. He might be unable to remember what he ate that morning; he will recite a litany of regrets when ask. His brain alights with could haves and should haves. He is oblivious to the fact that we are really asking when he was most cowardly.
Kierkegaard vetted cowardice more than most philosophers. He concluded that it evades our attention, because it is something we so desperately evade. “There must be something wrong with cowardice,” he wrote, “since it is so detested, so averse to being mentioned….” If it ever appeared in “its true form” we would banish it from our lives “for who would choose to dwell with this wretchedness?” Kierkegaard described the “cowardly soul” as “the most miserable thing one can imagine.” The coward combines the destructive and the pathetic in a singularly damning way.
The cowardice question I have not read Kierkegaard address is who determines cowardice? Is it the culture or the individual? I say the individual. You can hold true to yourself and separate from those who despise you. You can never separate yourself from yourself. Acting according to wants and interests, including fulfilling obligations and promises, goes a long way to banishing cowardice from the attic between our ears.