Character and Courage

I saw the new Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies last weekend. My wife and I enjoyed it. It’s an engrossing, well-acted movie, beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List). Fair warning: This is a Cold War movie in more than subject matter; if you’re looking for explosions and gunfights, head elsewhere. Bridge of Spies is a movie for people who enjoy listening to other people talk.

Tom Hanks portrays James B. Donovan, the real-life insurance lawyer at the height of the Cold War who was asked to defend a suspect Soviet spy in court. I’ll leave enough unsaid to give those of you who (like me) don’t know the history a cause to see the film, but I’ll summarize it thusly: Donovan risked his professional and personal life in representing Rudolf Abel, and then did it all again–at the further behest of his country–by entering East Germany to negotiate a crucial prisoner exchange with the Germans and Russians.

Donovan was a man of remarkable courage. He cut across the passions of the country by insisting that Abel be represented fairly, even to the Supreme Court. He presciently warned the civil judge who sentenced Abel that a death penalty would ruin any chance to use him as leverage in case the Soviets captured an American. And he stood his ground with Soviet negotiators, insisting on favorable terms even when threatened. One of the characters in the film gives Donovan the nickname “Standing Man.” It suits him.

Resolute character in the face of intense opposition is a favorite theme of Spielberg. He seems to relish the stories of those kind of men, whether real (Abraham Lincoln, Oskar Schindler) or imaginary (Capt. John Miller). Courageous people are obviously of evergreen interest to novelists and filmmakers, but one thing that sets Spielberg’s heroes apart is the courage of their self-mastery. Spielberg’s courageous characters are not merely brave in the culturally convenient senses of the word. They are not brave in their self-actualization; they are brave in their self-sacrifice. There is a tremendous difference.

If you were to ask most people today to list the 3 most important virtues, do you think courage would be on the list? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I don’t think that’s because we fail to see the necessity of courage. Rather, my guess is that, in a culture of pure self-actualization and assertion of “my story,” all of us simply believe that we are courageous by default. A generation’s worth of agonized psychological health campaigns and “self-esteem” parenting literature have made all of us deeply suspicious that we are being very courageous and very brave merely by getting out of the bed in the morning.

Consider the lyrics of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” one of the most popular songs of the last year. What is “Roar” if not a celebratory anthem for crowning oneself courageous for the achievement of existence?

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sit quietly, agree politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

What does “agree politely” and “past the breaking point” mean here? I guess it’s hypothetically possible that Perry has recorded an upbeat, catchy mainstream pop tune about domestic violence, but I doubt it. Perry gives us a clue what she means elsewhere in the song:

Now I’m floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero

The key phrase there is “my own hero.” Not YOUR hero. Not THEIR hero. MY own hero. Perry’s song is about freeing oneself from the life of what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” people whose sense of identity consists in being approved and admired so much so that they forget to love anything else. That is indeed a noble goal, and one that can point towards heaven, as Screwtape warned Wormwood.

But does being “my own hero” also mean, as the chorus sings, “I am a champion”? Is asserting oneself as an individual really the deepest and most genuine form of courage? If it is, then I’m afraid men like James Donovan and Abraham Lincoln were deeply self-deceived. Those men believed the way they could courageous was not by asserting their own personal championhood, or becoming “their own hero” to the frustrated designs of those around them. Rather, people like Lincoln and Donovan were willing to lay down their lives for the cause of something outside them, for something that had lasted and would last well beyond their lives and their fortunes. Rather than asserting their inherent awesomeness, these men became servants. They chose to say “Here I am” rather than “Hear me roar.”

When Christ said that whoever keeps his life will lose it, he wasn’t merely being poetic. Claiming an autonomous self-dictation over our lives may bring with it the sensations of thrill and adventure, but ultimately, by losing our courage and our character, we become absorbed in the elementary systems of the world. It’s true that we should follow what is truth and right regardless of how many voices invite us elsewhere. But it’s just as true that truth and right are not determined by the dictates of our hearts. It’s not that we shouldn’t live for ourselves, it’s that we can’t. We were made to give ourselves up. That’s who we really are, and only in doing that can we become more like our true selves, more like what–or, indeed, like Who–we were meant to be.

Rather than being told to follow our heart, what my generation needs is to be told to lay down our lives for something great and true and beautiful and timeless. So much of what is mistaken for courage these days is merely the shriveling of the person back into itself. We should heed the example of James Donovan and be willing to give ourselves to others, to great causes, even to (that dreaded word!) institutions and places. Even if no movie is ever made about our courage, we have a Father in heaven who promises that if we lose our life, we will, in the end, find it.