Instinctive Lout, Instinctive Hero

British drunkenness is not a pleasant story. I can remember years ago reading for some class or other of gin and the 18th century. Hogarth portrays a world little different from the ghetto of the crack whores a decade or two ago. Alcohol may seem fun, but it doesn’t always look all that good. 

One of the numerous reasons I got fed up with running a business in the notorious strip across from our local university were the tiresome drunks.  Wedged between bars, our copy shop gave us a front row seat on – well, on a guy pissing on the window with such glazed over eyes that his only reason was probably the most primitive – nature called.  The night guy complained to me the next day- he’d tried to place himself between the window and the young girls working with him; he knew animals – he’d just gotten his PhD. in ag – and he knew the world – he’d just returned from a Peace Corps tour in Africa; he wasn’t shocked but he was angry.  Thirteen years of locking up late at night and walking out into the cool night air to see two drunks “helping” an equally drunken girl into a car, of seeing evidence that many had relieved themselves in the bushes and in the gutter around us didn’t make me sad to sell.  Yes, drunken man is not noble man; he does show us how vulgar and selfish our instincts can be – and why it is a good thing they are restrained. Then there was the guy whose intentions were clearly dishonorable toward another of my workers as she moved toward her car; since he was falling down, tangled in the pants he was trying to get off, she found him less threatening than disgusting.  Man can be loutish.  (And if drunks dominate here, I don’t remember the druggies on the Drag in Austin being any prizes, either.)

What England did in the Victorian years is Himmelfarb territory – and it is a remarkable century in terms of restraint and duty and productivity.  For instance, the number of crimes that were punished by hanging went down, but the police became respected and so were women.  (The few crimes more punished at the end of the century than the beginning were against women.)  Those gin-soaked mothers became the hands that rocked the cradle. As both the Chicagoboyz and Dalyrmple note our culture can encourage or discourage.  But we also need models.  The manliness of firefighters asking for last rites as they went into the burning towers or of the Iraqi man throwing himself on the suicide bomber headed toward his mosque – these are in my head and I’m thankful for them.  

But if our species demonstrates an instinctive & eternal vulgarity, an ugly & base self that seeks oblivion in drinks or drugs or mob violence, we also long for consciousness, our heroism instinctive, too.   

Kaus critiques the Mumbai responses, but if the tragedy demonstrated failings in law enforcement, it also showed us what man could be.  A&L  often links to cynical academia, but this time it found virtue.  Michael Pollock’s “Heroes at the Taj” concludes:

 It is much easier to destroy than to build, yet somehow humanity has managed to build far more than it has ever destroyed. Likewise, in a period of crisis, it is much easier to find faults and failings rather than to celebrate the good deeds. It is now time to commemorate our heroes.

He and his wife had separated, hoping their children would have at least one parent.  They survived because in their “entire group, not one person screamed or panicked”; but, more importantly, he is certain 

Far fewer people would have survived if it weren’t for the extreme selflessness shown by the Taj staff, who organized us, catered to us and then, in the end, literally died for us.

They complemented the extreme bravery and courage of the Indian commandos, who, in a pitch-black setting and unfamiliar, tightly packed terrain, valiantly held the terrorists at bay.

The New York Times interviewed the executive chef, Hermant Oberoi, of the Taj.  His response was beautiful in its simplicity:  “The only thing was to protect the guests,” he said, “I think my team did a wonderful job in doing that. We lost some lives in doing that.”  

During the attacks, six employees from the kitchen staff were slain. Another hotel employee, a maintenance worker on night duty, was shot in the abdomen and remained in critical condition on Monday.

The Times describes another Vishnu Datta Ram Zende, who remained at his post at the Victoria Terminus; as shots rang out, “he gripped his microphone and calmly directed a panicked crowd toward the safest exit.”  He chanted “’Walk to the back and leave the station through Gate No. 1,’ . . .  alternately in Hindi and Marathi, barely stopping to take a breath until the platform was cleared. No sooner, gunmen located his announcement booth and fired, puncturing one of the windows.  Mr. Zende was not hurt.”

We often hear of the unlovely side of capitalism, but out of Mumbai come stories of service workers, staying at their posts, protecting their guests, taking bullets.  Such responsibility is perhaps best put in the existentialist view of the old waiter in Hemingway’s tightly written “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” 

Honoring such heroes is as important as discouraging thugs & slugs.  And a culture that encourages us to be our best – rational, loving, self-respecting, responsible – encourages our happiness.  How happy is a woman who awakes to see the tell-tale flipflops beside her bed, perhaps a strange man within it, and a brain aching, parched for water and self-respect?  How happy the guy who stumbled across the parking lot, his feet tangled in his pants, when he awakes feeling shame, his knees skinned and his reputation in shambles? How does a man who, with his kitchen staff, protected two hundred lives feel when he wakes the next morning?  How do those we know who are quietly heroic wake each morning?

We need to honor heroes because they deserve it.  But also, selfishly, because they steady us. I’m neither strong nor virtuous, but am a better person because such people have imprinted themselves on my mind.  I’m too restless, too undisciplined to foster that gentle beauty, but am warmed by it.  This is one message of The Sorrow and the Pity, as much a tribute as a critique. We suspect such people demonstrated daily loving kindness & courage - expressing in inconsequential ways what now was so consquential.

I think of my Sunday School class, where I see grace and courage.  One older man I’ve never really talked to and know only in that setting.  But I deeply admire him.  He embodies both public and domestic heroism.  I learned a few years ago he had piloted a plane over Normandy on D-day.  The local paper on one of the anniversaries featured him and another elderly man I often sit with.  One had been a very young officer charging the beach which the other had flown over a few hours before.

But they have also shown heroism in the duties and the limitations they have accepted with grace.  When I first started attending, the old pilot would chivalrously help his wife; they always brought their son with them – a son probably now in his fifties or more.  He is “challenged” as people say today, but he has remarkably good manners – remembers names, greeting others with a pleasant smile and cheerful question, closing the door when the class begins and the hallway is too loud.  His thoughtfulness is more graceful than that of many less “challenged.”  Clearly, he has had a happy life, he’s been “brought up right”:  his father’s pleasure and even pride in his son’s good manners is apparent. The wife and mother has, since I started coming to class, moved into an assisted care facility, so the two men are left to their own devices.  The father seldom speaks in class – the years have taken a toll on his hearing but I suspect his style was always laconic, stoic, and capable.

I often sit beside another D-day survivor. A few weeks ago, he said at the end of class that he and his wife were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary that weekend. They had married quickly at 20; they exchanged vows and he left for the front the next day.  They wouldn’t see each other for two years, though both wrote faithfully.  A museum has asked for that historical record, but they aren’t quite ready to part with the letters.  I asked him if in his years as a marriage counselor that was the path he would have recommended; he laughed, but countered that it had worked out.  Returning from the war, he got his Ph.D. in psychology and spent the long center of his life teaching and counseling.  And now, that knowledge helps him understand himself, but must be bittersweet as well.  He notes his mind has begun to fail in unpredictable ways: Alzheimer’s.  He doesn’t always remember people, but he does the books he reads.   He understands more about how the brain works than do most of us – and understands how it doesn’t, as well.  He reads Sacks; he still reads psychology journals.  Lately, he has been talking of In an Instant.  It’s a love story, too, he tells me, as Lee Woodruff describes her husband’s injury and the ways in which the brain slowly recovers, improvising solutions.  He is heartened, much more is known than a few short years ago.     But he faces that future with the kind of heroism he showed in his youth.

These men, like the firemen on 9/11, like the workers at the Taj, demonstrate our potential to be more than drunken louts.  I suspect duty has its own rewards – steadiness and peace.  These men brought from their youths a courage that sustains them in age.  The opponents of that peace are as much man’s nihilism as his vulgarity.  Accepting duty with grace demonstrates the power of the life force, or at least of lovingkindness which seems its best expression.

6 thoughts on “Instinctive Lout, Instinctive Hero”

  1. […]the Iraqi man throwing himself on the suicide bomber headed toward his mosque[…]

    In this case, not only did the Iraqi man lay down his life to stop the suicide bomber, he also willingly put his immortal soul in jeopardy. For all he knew, the bomber and the Islamic supremacists who sent him might have been correct that Allah was, in fact, on their side, in which case his actions would have condemned him to eternal damnation in addition to a gruesome death. (Indeed, the latter consequence would be a pittance next to the former.) This is basically soul sacrifice – an altogether different level of heroism, I would argue, from the others you’ve described.

  2. Obviously, I’m no theologian. And the sacrifice was great.

    I would like to understand the standards you introduce, however. Westerners are raised on literature which often uses a similar theme: a greater evil than murder is the temptation of the soul. My assumption (which may well be quite wrong, of course, for I know little of Islamic beliefs) would be that if the Islamic supremacist was right and the mosque & worshippers should be destroyed, indeed, if the true God commanded the destruction of the mosque, the man’s neighbors, wife, and children, wouldn’t the man who brought down the suicide bomber to save those around him be already alienated from the true God? Wouldn’t his tradition, his mosque, his beliefs be wrong in the sight of those who would destroy them all? Mine may be a quite Western way of looking at this, so I am interested in an explanation that would help me understand the distinctions if such this version does not apply and other standards are used.

Comments are closed.