Nobody wants to think of herself as a whining, sniveling, cowering coward. At the same time, one of the advantages of the female sex is that (forgive me, sisterhood!) we are not expected to wear such courage as we may have on our sleeves. Earning the red badge of courage — to borrow the title from Stephen Crane — is not a rite of passage to womanhood, in any culture of which I know.
It’s one reason (and not the only reason) why I’m inclined to reverse the traditional morning prayer of the Jewish male who thanks God that he has not been created a woman. Defenders of the prayer explain that men are obligated –and therefore privileged — to say certain prayers that are time-bound. These are not obligatory for women because their traditionally time-sensitive, household duties would make them a hardship. However, the asymmetry needs no defense from me. I thank God, very sincerely, that he has not made me a man.
Before continuing, let me first say that I’m deliberately bracketing current questions about masculinity and femininity – whether and to what degree these are socially constructed and therefore subject to revision and reconstruction.
Here I merely confine myself to my own experience.
During the days when I rode the IRT to work at Brooklyn College, a time came when passengers waiting for their trains on subway platforms were being pushed onto the tracks in front of oncoming trains. It was one of those episodes of evil that happens without rhyme or reason.
Hoping to learn how to defend my fellow New Yorkers, should I see such an attack on a platform where I was standing, I took a class in martial arts at my local Y. After a number of lessons, I equipped myself with a long key chain, with a bunch of keys attached, which I’d learned how to swing as a weapon. I kept my secret weapon out of sight, of course, but within reach of my right hand.
One thing I noticed right away. Most people on a subway train are just trying to mind their own business. But every once in a while, you’ll see someone who’s dangerous. The dangerous ones would look at me and they knew. They knew they were better — at whatever I planned to do with the chain — than I was or would ever be. They knew my heart wasn’t in it and theirs was.
I went back to my old m.o., praying my way out of it, and that worked better. A woman’s got to know her limitations.
There are all kinds and degrees of courage. It’s not hard for me to picture scenes where I’d be good for nothing. Threaten to pull out my fingernails and I’ll talk, I’ll talk. Whaddya want me to say? I’ll say it. I’ll sign it. You can have it. Or, more precisely, I haven’t a clue whether I’d acquit myself decently or not. What I’ve learned to date about my own relation to pain is not encouraging, however.
The how would I behave question has been a concern since childhood. At that time, I had this odd reaction to the threat (it was a threat, for a Jewish child) of another Holocaust. I felt that one had to behave correctly during one’s Holocaust. I don’t know if Armenian children are worried about behaving correctly should there be another massacre of the Armenians. When I researched the Holocaust as an adult, I came to think that animadversions on the conduct of such victims were in the worst of taste. But as a child, it was a preoccupation.
Merleau-Ponty writes that, during the German occupation of France, one had to realize that the fear of death under torture was no longer relegated to bygone centuries. It had come back, to visit the present time.
I got the message. Extreme tests of valor might still present themselves to ordinary people living their normal lives.
What moral do I draw? As I say, I have no way of predicting how I would behave under an extreme test, and I am not particularly optimistic about it. My best idea for a strategy is to avoid extreme tests. Rushing to test one’s valor is a very different thing from having to test it. Taking unnecessary risks seems to me a bad business. However,
treating smaller tests as if they were extreme,
as if one’s honor hung on them,
seems to me good practice.