"Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change." -RFK (via Brian Kinsella)I think that bravery and moral courage are wrapped in all sorts of packages. It is important to me to make a mental note when I witness or experience acts of bravery that defy our sometimes watered-down use of the word. In a previous post, I made mention of what it is (for me) to be humbled, and I suppose the two go hand in hand. I admit to having a short fuse when it comes to people who are so enamored of their own activities that they don't allow the actions and deeds of others to sit with them a while and push them to reconsider the cost/benefits of their self-absorption. Maybe this is why I dislike Twitter and why increasingly, I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Are we spending too much time "on the grid" and waxing poetic about those beautiful and poignant moments that delineate our protective bubble? Could we instead be just doing instead of documenting? Maybe there's a balance.
Take my friend Brian. Brian is not afraid to burst a bubble, if it means that we have a deeper appreciation for life and for the people whose lives are not as gilded as our own. I met Brian in 2004, when he was an undergraduate student at Hopkins. He was in ROTC; I was a graduate student in the history of art. Brian worked at The Wine Source, an amazing wine-beer-spirits-cheese store in Baltimore where my two graduate school friends Heather and Jen also worked to make extra money. Our $13,000 annual stipend only went so far, after all. Side note: Heather and Jen both met their husbands at the Wine Source. I love that. Social outings included "the guys from the Source" - a welcome reprieve from grad school socializing which invariably centered around discussions of Panofsky, Donatello, and what Bernini was really up to in his Ecstasy of St. Theresa. As scintillating as these discussions were (and still are), I couldn't help but feel that all of this intellectual banter wasn't really all that illuminating after all, and I often found my inner dialogue wondering just how much I should care about whether the latest Rembrandt attribution was correct. Why not just love the painting for being what it is - something that none of us participating in the conversation could ever possess the talent or the agency to sign our names to?
Conversations with Brian, on the other hand, consistently pushed me to shed my pretensions and the widely-held belief that intellectual might held great moral merit. His perspective on the world - at the time, an intriguing combination of naivete and wisdom - challenged me to embrace my moral courage and what little bravery I felt I had at such a watershed moment in my life. He also taught me one of my most valuable lessons: do what you are. Don't say what you are and expect the Ganges to rise up to greet you. It has more important souls to tend to.
A New Jersey boy, Brian speaks with a slight New Jersey accent that reminds me so much of so many childhoods spent on the Jersey shore with my family. Brian used more product in his hair than I ever have, and he was always a perfect bronzed tan - even in February. His teeth are white as innocence. I found this so charming and endearing. He was a body builder for a time, and he shaved his entire body of all hair. He once showed me photographs from bodybuilding competitions, and I remember being amazed by what people choose to do with their bodies. Brian was in a fraternity, SAE, and he was the soul of his fraternity house. He was a shameless flirt, but rarely dated, because he is particular. He also had NO time, given the number of jobs he worked: the Wine Source, an internship at the Secret Service, his obligations to ROTC, among other part-time commitments. I am not a fan of sororities and fraternities, though I respect and understand the appeal they have to some. In my estimation, spending time in the gym pumping iron couldn't be more boring. And tanning beds make you smell weird. But Brian and I got along like a house on fire. We were instant friends, built from a shared locus of honesty, mutual respect, and the unspoken acknowledgment that we had a whole lot to learn from one another.
Despite his busy schedule, Brian always had time to come by my office in the library. He frequently left me notes, and I still have one he wrote me that is truly one of the kindest letters I have ever received. He made me watch The Ring, and I will forever curse him for falling asleep 15 minutes into the film, while I sat perched on the edge of my couch, stiff and trembling with terror. He challenged me to make fun of myself at a point in my life when I had a very hard time doing so. He hated compliments, and whenever I would thank him for carrying armfuls of art history books for me, or checking in on me after I had a medical procedure, he would shrug it off, "No, no, no, P. That's nothin'," he would say. He was a friend - a real friend. I needed this in a member of the opposite sex - even if it was an undergrad with whom, on the surface, I had very little in common.
Baltimore is a place for hard-knocks lessons, though - even Hopkins undergrads are not immune to its breezy callousness. The back door to the SAE fraternity house where Brian lived was left open one warm April night in 2004, while Brian slept because he had to be up early for work and his housemates finally dozed off after a typical evening of revelry. Brian awoke in his first-floor room to the sound of his housemate screaming from the living room, and he ran out to discover his friend pleading "Help me," covered in blood from being stabbed by an intruder. "So much blood, P," he later told me.
Brian knows how to save lives. This is what he was trained to do and this is what he does now. He held the wound together with both hands, and yelled for his housemates to help him. No one heard. One girl, who stayed over at the fraternity that night, heard the screams and was too afraid to do anything. Brian doesn't blame her, because his heart is just that big and forgiving. His friend died the next day from multiple stab wounds. Brian spoke at the memorial service, and I listened to his voice cracking and quivering as he mourned the loss of a brother - someone he couldn't save.
I worried for a time that Brian's understandable anger and sense of helplessness might wipe away that amber warmth that he shared with such consistent altruism and sincerity. I worried that he would become jaded, and that his heart, which is so very open to the world, would close. I worried that he would find the nearest corner, and reside THERE, with his back against the wall. But Brian doesn't have time for such things. He also doesn't have it in his make-up to be an Atlas to his own heartache, when he has bigger loads to carry:
Brian in Haiti, 2010
After graduating from Hopkins, Brian started active duty, first in Europe. "P!" he wrote, "I finally understand what the big deal about Renaissance art is!!!" Brian was stationed in Italy and in Germany, before spending over a year in the thick of our current war with Iraq. When I heard he was being stationed there, it was from a simple post on facebook, and then a short letter. No fanfare. No "pray for me." My heart sort of sat in stunned panic for a good day after I learned he was going, because part of me didn't know that Brian would survive (despite the fact that of anyone I know, Brian could survive almost anything). He doesn't believe in "think before you leap" when it comes to helping people, and my overactive imagination had scenarios of Brian taking bullets for others on rerun. He could very well have medals of honor galore, and I wouldn't know about it. He doesn't boast of his meteoric rise in the military, of the many things he has done to, in small but significant ways, make our world a little bit better. He just does it. He does not agree with this war, but he went. That takes moral courage, bravery, and a strong stomach to boot.
Brian is now in Haiti for the next few months. Having only recently joined us stateside after his time in Iraq, he left immediately after the earthquake. While everyone posted on facebook about where to donate (which is very important), Brian posted simply, "Off to Haiti." This kind of makes one think twice before boasting about something that doesn't involve saving a life, unloading 50 lb bags of rice, or organizing housing for the so many millions of displaced souls. We don't have time for our own hubris. We don't have time to give ourselves daily "shout-outs" anymore than our time is wasted if we don't spend a bit of our day leaning into discomfort to help someone who lacks the wherewithal to help themselves. Brian understands this. He understands that we can write and post and paste links and bemoan all of the ways that the world hemorrhages, and that to truly honor these souls in crisis, one has to help them.
And I wish I was more like him.