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Horatio at the Bridge

One of the very popular tropes in action films is the lone fighter making a courageous last stand in order to buy time for others to get to safety.  “Go!  Save yourselves!” is the command through gritted teeth.  “I’ll stay and hold them off as long as I can!”  Typically the odds are wildly against this hero: an entire army, a savage monster, a powerful wizard.  “He’s never gonna make it,” someone in the retreating party will mourn.  “I’ll never meet anyone braver than him!”
It’s a popular tradition in stories of physical courage.  One of the most enduring versions that has been told again and again since Roman times is the legend of Horatio at the Bridge.
The mighty army of the Etruscans was marching toward Rome, which was still a young and small city.   Farmers and villagers from the surrounding countryside had fled in advance of the enemy, streaming across the bridge that spanned the river Tiber, seeking shelter within Rome’s walls.  “But what happens if the Etruscans cross the bridge?” the people wailed.  “They will tear down our walls and destroy us!”
A troop of Roman soldiers stood guard on the bridge, hearts pounding with suspense.  At last, over the crest of a hill showed a line of spears that grew taller and taller as the advancing soldiers marched forward.  The army came on inexorably, massive and terrible, the tramp of their feet booming like thunder.  Rome’s walls could not withstand an assault by such a force.  
Among the soldiers stood young Horatio, tall and proud.  “We must tear down the bridge,” he said to his companions.
“There’s no time, Horatio!”
“Tear it down, I’ll hold them off,” he replied, gripping his shield straps tight in his fist.   While the other soldiers raced to the safe side of the river and began hacking at the wooden bridge, the vanguard of the Etruscan army came within shouting distance.
“Who among you will fight in single combat!” Horatio cried, evoking the epic battle between Achilles and Hector before the gates of Troy.  “One soldier of Rome stands to fight your whole army!  Who among you will do the honor?!  Or are you an army of slaves, ordered to die by a tyrant?”
The Etruscans hung back,  unsure how to proceed.  Horatio could hear the frantic chopping behind him, and the groaning creak as weakened bridge timbers began to sag.  From among the ranks of the Etruscans, someone threw a dart, hitting Horatio in the eye.  Emboldened, the enemy surged forward, and several spears flew toward the lone hero.   Horatio warded them off with his shield.  Then, as he heard the bridge collapse with a great splash into the Tiber behind him, he dove into the river.  
The Romans who watched this show of bravery turned their faces away in grief.  Their city was saved, but how could Horatio survive falling blinded into the flooded Tiber in full armor?  “Wait! Look there!” came a triumphant shout.  And there, swimming powerfully across the churning river, was Horatio.  Cheers of victory greeted him when he reached the Roman shore, and forever afterward he was hailed as one of the greatest heroes of the Republic.

Failure Is Always an Option

I have been reflecting recently on how often I hear, “Failure Is Not An Option.” From earnest motivational posters to hard-bitten action films, this phrase is bandied about as if “failure” is tantamount to total annihilation, like the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star in “Star Wars.” No, we definitely don’t want that.

At the same time, I see chirpy messages like “Reach for the Stars!” “Go for it!” and “You Can Do It!”

So… which is it? It can’t possibly be both! The command, “Go for it, but for heaven’s sake don’t fail!” seems perfectly calculated to cause an epic choke and an epidemic of anxiety. Oh wait, that’s what we have, isn’t it? It is axiomatic that we learn more from our failures than from our triumphs, so how have we made any result short of first place so toxic?  Of course we always want our kids to do their best, but are they always clear on the difference between doing their best and doing the best? 

I recently entered a national contest – never mind what it was – and spent some time studying past winners on the website with my daughter. The skill and expertise demonstrated in those examples made my effort look pretty amateurish, and the Lovely K. and I agreed that my chances of winning looked pretty slim given the competition. So why do it? Why even try? 

My willingness to fail is very recent! Time was when I would do pretty much anything to avoid putting my standing as a winner at risk. That meant I had to restrict myself to a quite narrow range of things that I’m really good at, and steer clear of serious competition. One by one, other activities or interests withered away, killed by the life-sucking judgment of “not good enough.” Failure had too sharp a sting.

But as a parent, I see the harmful effects of the fear of failure in my daughter; there are plenty of things she shrinks back from trying, or things she throws in the towel on after a first failed effort. “Failure is not an option” means it’s better not to try than to come up short. And yet, if our reach exceeds our grasp we still come away with something in hand. Even if you don’t make it all the way to the top of the mountain, you still have a better view than you get at the bottom.

I sometimes suspect that we’ve created a rigid dichotomy around the concepts of winning and losing.  There’s first place (winner) and then there’s everything else (losers).  But really?  Would you really say that the Olympic athletes who don’t win a medal are losers?  That the kids who finish second, third and fourth (etc.)  in the National Spelling Bee are losers?   Success is measured in many ways, not just by a glossy first place ribbon.  I don’t advocate the “everybody gets a trophy,” standard, which rewards kids just for showing up.  But somewhere between Failure Is Not an Option and Everybody’s a Winner there is a happy medium, where hard work is recognized and applauded, and perseverance is a reward that will enrich your child’s entire life – not to mention what your child might learn along the way about what she is capable of, and who she is as an individual.

So I am setting my sights on some activities I will probably fail at, trying to summon each of the six types of courage in turn to risk disappointment, loss, blows to my ego, and possibly even some bumps and bruises as well. In some ways it’s a performance for an audience of one (my daughter), but I also know I’ll end up with a little bit of stardust on my fingers. Here I go: watch me fail!

Carnegie Heroes

If you ever want to give your faith in humanity a boost, take a look at the hero profiles on the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission’s website. What is the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission you ask? From their website:

The two-fold mission of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission: To recognize persons who perform acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada, and to provide financial assistance for those disabled and the dependents of those killed helping others.

Reading these profiles is truly inspiring, and you may begin to notice some themes running through these stories of ordinary citizens who performed extraordinary acts of courage – usually on behalf of strangers. Many of these heroes credit their family relationships with giving them the core belief that every life is worth saving. The influence of parents is clear in profile after profile. The youngest medal recipients of 2011, three teenage Florida boys who saved a woman from drowning, explicitly credit their parents. “I grew up with my dad helping people,” one of the young heroes told reporters. This is the influence of family connection and strong attachment.

A second theme is the influence of rehearsal, either mental rehearsal or actual practice. Another teen medal recipient credited the self-discipline he learned in baseball practice with helping him rescue a drowning man. Other recipients cite safety drills in childhood, or hearing stories of courage and service to others with inspiring them and encouraging them to act. It is because of this rehearsal that heroes are able to act “without thinking.” The thinking happens ahead of time.

A third theme I observed in these profiles was gratitude – not the gratitude of the people whose lives were saved, although of course that’s there! – but the gratitude of each of these heroes to have been able to help! That is a truly beautiful thing, in my opinion.

So do yourself a favor and read a few of these profiles. Share them with your kids. Who knows? Maybe one day the Carnegie folks will be honoring you.


More Evidence On the Power of Stories

A recent article in the New York Times, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” cited current research on what happens when we read (or listen to) fictional narratives. You may recall I wrote an article back in December in a similar vein, This Is your Brain on Stories.  Again, it has been shown through fMRI scanning that reading words associated with sensory or motor activities stimulates not just the regions in the brain that are related to language processing, but to the specific sensory or motor activities being referenced. Stories thus act as simulations of activities or events, giving us the chance to live an experience we haven’t yet had. Scientists also speculate that lots of experience with fiction, with its rich metaphors and descriptions and exploration of character’s thoughts and emotions, helps to develop “theory of mind.” This is what helps us imagine what might be going on in someone else’s head, and gives us clues about how to proceed in social interactions.

The article does specifically mention how this affects children:

A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.)

This is yet more support for our proposal that sharing and discussing stories with children can help develop their courage and prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead. Please read the entire article here.

Cited in the article is Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor (University of Toronto) in cognitive psychology with a special interest in fiction and narrative.  In this article in Greater Good magazine,  Oatley describes findings of some of his research and research by colleagues.  Reading fiction – stories – promotes greater social abilities, abilities that help us to understand the emotions and motivations of others.   Additionally, reading (or listening to) stories produces measurable increases in empathy, which is a foundation of moral development, and thus moral courage.

So, can I interest you in a tale or two?

Courage Quotation of the Day

In whatever area in life one may meet the challenges of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience – the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient — they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.  – John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage

St. Ailbe and the Wolf

Among the values that social courage can help us promote in our children are compassion, tolerance, caring and charity. These are the values we exhibit in the social realm in our behavior to others. Here is a wonderful legend from Ireland that demonstrates these values. Compare it to the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, or Androcles and the Lion. It also fits in the same tradition of foundling heroes we’ve discussed on this blog before.
Long and long ago in Ireland, almost so long ago the wood that built the first harp was still a green twig, a poor couple had a boy baby and couldn’t keep him – that’s how poor they were. Without knowing what else to do, they left him on a hillside and hastened away in shame. It wasn’t long after that that a she-wolf was trotting by, and her keen ears caught the sound of a cry. Her nose led her to a heather bush, and there lay a pink, furless pup, or so she thought. It wasn’t like her own pups, but she picked him up carefully – Ailbe was his name, though how was she to know it? – and brought him along back to her den to suckle him beside the others. Ailbe soon grew strong and hale, and ran four-legged with his brother wolves. If his wolf-mother sometimes thought him a strange creature with fur nowhere but his head, she loved him all the same.
Two years of wolf-life Ailbe had. Then (as fate would have it) a horseman was riding over the heath one day and spied the boy, running on all fours across the green. So far from human habitation they were that the prince (for he was a prince, as fate would have it) knew the child must be a foundling. He chased the little thing and caught him up, kicking and screaming and howling for his mother. The she-wolf, hearing her odd child wailing in fear, came bounding over the crest of the hill, and her four big grown wolf-sons with her. The prince took one look at the rushing pack and put his horse to the gallop, still holding the howling child. Mile upon mile the wolves chased the prince, their hearts bursting with the effort to rescue their brother and son. But the horse was a swift one (as fate would have it) and the wolves finally dropped with exhaustion, raising their last mournful howls as the prince disappeared over the horizon.
It took a while, as you can well imagine, for Ailbe to understand he was a human, and learn good human speech and walk upright. His new mother – third mother – the princess was kind and wise and the prince was fair and good, and Aible grew to honest manhood and took priest’s robes. He preferred the solitary life of contemplation, for human company still uneased him, and he took no pleasure in men’s sports. Hunting was especially disturbing to him: the sound of the hunter’s horn reminded him of a howling wolf.
Indeed one day the mournful wail of the horn carried to his ears a sound so familiar that he ran out the door, looking left and right. There – there! Running toward him, gaunt and terrified, ran an old she-wolf, and four more old wolves panting beside her. Ailbe knelt in the road and opened his arms to her, for he knew her and somehow (how can we understand such mysteries as life offers?) she knew him as well, her strange little pup now a grown man and priest besides. With his wolf family beside him, Ailbe stood straight and strong and ordered the hunters to turn aside. And ever after, until the end of their days, the wolves were welcome in Ailbe’s hall, and ate from his table, and were never harmed nor hounded.

Special thanks to acclaimed storytellers, Jennings and Ponder, for bringing this story to my attention.

Courage Quotation of the Day

Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson