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August 28, 2005

Dancing With Bears

The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.

- G.K. Chesterton

A few days ago I learned from JHD that Lieutenant Cathey of 2/2 had been killed in Iraq. This was hard, for JHD's son served with him. When I got the news, I had finished writing for the morning and was exhausted, but sat back down at the keyboard to compose a farewell. After struggling for about an hour through a miasma of caffeine, pain, and sleepiness I was about to hit post and my finger slipped. I had wiped the completed post out entirely. I didn't have the heart to start again. The phone rang and I realized it was almost time to start work, so I gave in.

Later, over at Grim's, I realized that sometimes things happen for a reason. He, too, had written about Lt. Cathey, but as is often the case had done so in a way that made me think. Over the next few days I kept going back and re-reading parts of his post. I can't think of a time when I've ever done that before. It's probably a very bad sign: one that means this won't make very much sense. But I woke last night and couldn't go back to sleep. So halfway though reading a book and listening to the sound of raindrops hitting the leaves through the open window, I thought I might as well try to make some sense out of this.

I won't repeat all of Grim's post - you should read it yourself. But the saddest part of Lt. Cathey's story is that when he left to go to war, he, like so many young men, promised to come back to his young wife and the child she was carrying. They say love is stronger than death. It may well prove so in some larger sense, but the sad fact is that Fate had other plans for him.

The Cindy Sheehans of this world would say, "Well, he is nothing but a fool. What did he expect? War is not healthy for Lieutenants and children and other Living Things." No doubt she thinks it was his recruiter's fault for selling him on those comic-book visions of war-as-glorified-mayhem from which one emerges ten feet tall, unscathed, and covered with medals.

Grim contrasts Cathey with another man, Timothy Treadwell, who ended up in the belly of a grizzly. Treadwell videotaped bears at close range, living among them, even touching them:

The amazing thing isn't that nature eventually turned on Treadwell. It was that for so long it played along, allowing Treadwell to love it and allowing him to think it loved, respected, needed, or even was aware of him.

In the comments section a discussion arose over whether it was foolish to play with grizzlies (whether we were discussing bears real or metaphoric I'm not entirely sure). Grim comments:

Treadwell was not a fool to believe that he could play with grizzly bears. He was a fool only because he thought they would always only play with him.

I wondered (and still do, and that is perhaps what keeps drawing me back) whether there isn't another possibility? Perhaps Treadwell knew quite well they might one day attack him, but he simply had no desire to defend himself? Perhaps the need to study bears was what mattered to him, and losing his life was not, in his estimation, too great a price to pay? Perhaps harming a bear, for whatever reason, would have seemed, to him, a negation of his life's work; of what he had decided was important.

I spend a lot of time watching other people. Many, most in fact, seem content to drift through life. For some reason, I have always needed a purpose, though. I think I spend entirely too much time worrying about what things mean. I suppose that at the end of things, I would like to look back on my life and say, "This is why I was here." It doesn't have to be earth-shatteringly important. I know it probably won't be. It could just be that I made someone happy. I should just like for there to have been a reason.

Maybe that is why I keep turning Grim's post over and over in my mind. There is a book I love: I read it every few years. It's getting to be rather cathartic now, almost a Pavlovian response. I've read it so many times that the last time, I could feel the tears starting up before I got through the opening chapter. So I know there is something there, gnawing at me, unresolved. Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters asks a question, "For what should a man honorably strive?"

It's an interesting question. For by choosing our battleground, by deciding which things we find worthy of honor, which we will sanctify, which we deride, we create the world in our own image.

Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, "I will not hit you if you do not hit me"; there is no trace of such a transaction. There is a trace of both men having said, "We must not hit each other in the holy place." They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.

But morality is not nature. The harsh laws of the world do not stand in abeyance because we foolishly insist on niceties of human conduct. And people come in all varieties; some greater and some lesser. The greater seem able, by some means, to exert some pull or force on those around them. The lesser are pulled along in their wake like flotsam. But in the modern-day world we are all urged to worship the Great God Practicality who goes by her everyday name Mediocrity: it is the worst sort of sin to try to be better or worse than another and the most arrant foolishness to take unnecessary risks. One must be Sensible. And it is this attitude, I think, that I have rebelled against all my life, to my detriment:

It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective. It is, I know, very common in this age; it was perfectly put in those quiet lines of Matthew Arnold which are more piercingly blasphemous than the shrieks of Schopenhauer --
"Enough we live: -- and if a life, With large results so little rife, Though bearable, seem hardly worth This pomp of worlds, this pain of birth."

I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes our epoch. For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre's castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.

No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.

The world is always ready to sneer at the fool who dances with bears. Of course he ended up eaten: what did he expect?

It never seems to occur to anyone that perhaps that is precisely the end he did expect? That perhaps he was not naive at all, or only naive at certain times, or perhaps he was simply incapable of being any other way than the way he was. That though being a Glorious Bastard was not really a conscious decision, it was something he would not have renounced, even if he could have changed his nature?

I wrote a poem about ten years ago (so long?). I was proud of it, though it's rather foolish, and then didn't write another until two weeks ago when I was ready to quit blogging. But it was for a friend who didn't trust people, because I suppose I do, almost pathologically. I'm not talking about the kind of blind trust that comes from being so stupid that you don't think there are bad people in the world. I'm talking about trust that is a decision: that bridges gaps between people. I've seen this work too many times in my own life to doubt its power. But maybe it only works for me, and then only most of the time. I don't know. That is one of the things I am struggling with; am I dancing with imaginary bears that are going to bite me someday, or am I creating something real for a space, even though I'm quite aware (mentally) that there are dangers?

He'd been hurt one too many times, and like many very strong people who become damaged, he turned brittle and a bit cynical and bitter, which is disappointing in one so young. At the time, I was convinced I was right, and he was wrong about people, and I thought he was selling himself short.

I had to laugh when I read Grim's post, because it made me see something I've been struggling with for a while in a new light. At the end he says:

The truth of this world is that the darkness is real. But the light is also real. Both joy and murder exist. In every second of your life, either one can reach out to touch you.

You must be prepared for either, at every moment. The best kind of man will be prepared for both.

It is not wrong to play with grizzlies: it is glorious. Yet you must be prepared to deal with them when they have done with playing. If you are going to live boldly, you must love to swim in clear water, yet not fear to bathe in blood.

This will not save you, for death is the one certainty. Yet it might let you live wisely and well, and defend for a while the things that you love.

And that's the problem. Life is so short. If you spend too much time worried about contingencies you miss all the wonderful possibilities out there. And if your eyes are narrowed all the time in suspicion, you may not see half of what life has to offer.

And there is that part of me that would rather live my way, even if I end up in the belly of the bear. For how else will I ever get close enough to touch one? There is, after all, something to be said for being a Glorious Bastard.

Posted by Cassandra at August 28, 2005 04:54 AM

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Comments

Have I not walked without an upward look
Of caution under the stars that very well
Might not have missed me when they shot and fell?
It was a risk I had to take -- and took.

-Bravado (1947)

Bravo, Cass.

Posted by: Drive-by Robert Frost at August 28, 2005 08:28 AM

Thank you :)

As usual, I was feeling a bit foolish.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 28, 2005 09:40 AM

Spot on Cassandra.

If you live a bold life, things both glorious and terrible may happen. You strive for the former always, but you have to always realize that the latter is likely to happen also.

We may well be too spoiled today. We assume that the glorious tihngs will happen, but not the terrible. We are trained, in many ways, to see every terrible event as a tragedy no matter the curcumstances. We don't see anymore that there is such as thing as something worth risking our life to achieve. It's why we aren't traveling to the stars anytime soon. It's why we don't climb mountains or reach far into the depths of the oceans. Risk is there in spades, and risk must be avoided at all costs.

Posted by: Jimmie at August 28, 2005 12:50 PM

I love this post! It reminds me so much of what is important in life that and, rather than repulse, it brings a smile!

The old saying my GrandDad used to tell me ad nauseum, "Life gives you what you take from it" is an axiom I've lived my entire life with. I've been called everything from Pagan to Stupid to Unconventional for the way I've lived. Ah, but I HAVE lived! No, I'll never be wealthy in regard to acquired worldly goods but I can walk the planet looking any man in the eye with no regret.

I remember the reactions The Lovely Bride and I got by family and friends when I gave up a twenty year career to head into the "unknown" to just simply be there to raise our children. It was absolutely amazing the consternation our announcement made. How could one give up the power of command and the worldly rewards to go raise children? With no prospects other than what an imagination could provide? Basically with no marketable skills outside of a career given up voluntarily?

I've lived with bears!

Therefore I have lived!

Honor means something still. Devotion is a Grisly waiting to pounce. Commitment is a whole herd of bears hiding in the bushes. To what do I owe my life? To no other than myself. And I prefer it that way.

And now I shall go die as a good pauper should. But not alone. And not unloved! Always remembered! On my own terms! :-)

Thanx for the post Cass. It really is a constant thought in my own mind, heart, and soul as well.

Posted by: JarheadDad at August 28, 2005 01:30 PM

JHD, maybe that's why we keep scoring the same on those stupid tests... :D

It's funny, we were headed out last night in a carful of people and I was talking to my son about my writing (he always asks how it's going).

I said, "Well, I guess it's going OK - I feel like a broken record sometimes" and told him that this had been weighing on my mind, but I just didn't know what I wanted to say about it. He's kind of cool to talk to because he is interested in philosophy and things other than politics (which I definitely need to get away from).

I'm interested in so many other things, but I realize from the lack of reaction when I was at Jet Noise that I'm a bit weird, so I don't really try much of that anymore. But sometimes I do long to talk about something else, so if I can figure a way to tie it in...

And I guess there's enough Celtic blood in the readership that I can weird people out every now and then and there are a few who humor me. That's why I love my bonnie lads... :)

Posted by: Cassandra at August 28, 2005 01:42 PM

And check your mail!

Posted by: Cassandra at August 28, 2005 01:44 PM

Unless the bears' natures were transmuted by his presence into being human of course he got eaten. These are bears, after all, not people.

And I believe there are bad people in this world who will never change and that I will do my best to guard against them. But I also believe that there are good people out there and it is not just the journey, but the purpose of it as well. I will not change what I believe for expedience sake, but will continue to live my beliefs.

I have seen people's hearts change for the better and for the worse. It is what you choose to do with adversity that will make you better, stronger and able to help others.

We do dream and live the impossible dream.

Posted by: Cricket at August 28, 2005 06:05 PM

No one has often accused me of being prone to Sensibility, at least. But I am left wondering at the end of this if you are in disagreement -- asserting that one should live boldly but without precaution, without fear and also without arms.

If you are only asking how you might get close enough to touch a bear, why, I was close enough myself just last month -- ten feet away, no farther. I felt comfortable enough, no better armed than with a single KABAR.

But if, like JHD, you're looking for a deeper meaning here -- bears as Commitment, bears as Devotion -- well, there are different arms to bear in that case.

The problem of Treadwell lies in his answer to Letterman: a simple "No," to the question of whether he might be eaten. Had he said, "Well, perhaps; but better that, than I should harm one of these noble creatures," so be it. That is an understandable position.

He seems to have believed a different position: that the bears would never choose to harm him. Like a woman who loves a vicious man, telling herself that he will not turn his wrath on her; or if he has already, that he has changed; that thinking is willful blindness.

If you want to give yourself over to the predations of the strong, as the monks, you will have my blessing. Good luck with following those principles: I don't doubt they brought joy to the monks for years and years before the black day came to Lindisfarne.

Yet you are asking yourself a different question from mine. I have not sought to know "What is the right way to live, without fear of what may be lost?" I have wondered, "What is the best life that may be defended in this world?"

I know I am a broken and fallen soul. But I hope to defend what can be defended, in the face of the perils of this place. We have learned not to say, "God save the right!", for if he does it is only in the next world. Yet I must believe that we should seek the best that can be had, and be honest with ourselves as to how good it can really be.

And so I advise: Play with bears, if you can. But wear your revolver.

Posted by: Grim at August 28, 2005 07:35 PM

I think (and since I have not an education from an institution nor sheepskin that proves same)that in
knowing the nature of the beast and being on guard prevents us from being acted upon.

That said, it still doesn't protect us from random acts of evil. What ultimately protects and strengthens us in dealing with bears is our working and living from a moral position, or knowing and living a universal law of good. A wise man once told me that having integrity means that you do what is right especially when no one is looking; that it helps you maintain your innocence even when all around you are hollering for your blood.

So lived the Master teacher.

Grim, you are not a broken and fallen person.
We should not let our environment dictate how we behave as far as evil goes. We should stand against evil and protect ourselves from it, but never give in to it.

Posted by: Cricket at August 28, 2005 07:44 PM

I don't think I was agreeing or disagreeing with you so much as going off on my own tangent, Grim. I agree that Treadwell said that during the interview. But I was more interested in the metaphorical Treadwells than the literal one.

That's why I inserted what I did about "I'm not talking about the kind of blind trust that comes from being so stupid that you don't think there are bad people in the world". But first of all I'm not sure it's always quite that cut and dried: that people always have that kind of certainty about what they're doing.

I think there are several cases. I believe a lot of people do know, deep down, exactly what they're doing, but choose to ignore that knowledge.

And then there are people who aren't sure, so they choose the optimistic case.

And then there are people, I suppose, like me who are pretty darned sure they're going to get burned sooner or later, but weigh the costs and figure it's worth the ride - of course it all depends on your risk tolerance and how important what you're doing is, to you. You do your best not to get hurt, but not to the point, as Cricket said, that you walk around with your shoulders bowed under.

I guess the problem with the latter approach is when you get a bit older and find you don't heal as quickly as you used to - that's always a bit of a shock.

I think there's another difference: you were, for the most part, talking about things that tend to get you killed.

Speaking of bears, I've actually had several close encounters with them, though not recently. But I've never actually touched one except through a tent :) The closest I've been is 2-3 feet away, and not grizzlies but black bears. Haven't seen one here yet though I hear we have them.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 28, 2005 08:06 PM

The closest I've been is 2-3 feet away...

And no, I *didn't* get that close on purpose!

Posted by: Cassandra at August 28, 2005 08:10 PM

Cassandra, Cricket, Grim and others, et. al.

In our ways, like unto the late Lt. Cathey, we try in small ways and large, to live up to some ideal, like this one:

"I will not disgrace the soldier's arms, nor abandon the comrade who stands at my side; but whether alone or with many, I will fight to defend things sacred and profane. I will hand down my country not lessened, but larger and better than I have received it."

Ancient Athenian Oath

We risk small and large, ridicule and scorn, to hold back the darkness one more day, to walk like men upright and seeking the light, and not like swine wallowing in the muck.

Posted by: David at August 29, 2005 08:36 AM

And so I advise: Play with bears, if you can. But wear your revolver.

I think, perhaps, you were wiser than I :)

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 27, 2005 09:37 PM

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