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Common Courage

In early nineteenth century Scotland, there was a girl who loved the feeling of being admired by young men, but enjoyed it only briefly. She married young, as was the custom in that age and place. She hadn’t expected any great change in her circumstances after joining her life to that of a sturdy farmer, but then her husband’s family decided to pull up their roots and risk everything to try their luck in America. There was no question, she had to go with them in the wooden ship that slipped up and down enormous Atlantic swells, even though she had a small child and was pregnant. In Canada, they moved to fresh farmland, only then being cleared and settled, where she birthed more children as she slogged through the years. Some of them died young, but she survived years of ill-health, living into her eighties.

Can any of us imagine that woman’s life? How did she feel in the morning when the cock’s crow or a baby’s cry woke her to another day? How well did she feel after bouts of colds, flu, and fever? Did nature cure her of injuries from difficult births, of UTIs and sinusitis, and all the other indignities to which the body is heir? Or were pains, nausea, and burning endless undercurrents in her life?

This woman is a character in a book by Alice Munro, The View From Castle Rock. In this collection, the writer has taken whatever is known of her ancestors’ lives and created stories. Her skill brings the personalities of these particular pioneers to vivid life, and we can share some of their feelings. They become singular, but it is quite likely that millions more lives around the world at that time were filled with similar struggles, or even greater dangers. And yet they persevered. They tilled land that in some cases still feeds us, and built the cities in which so many of us live today. What courage they had, to go out into the New World, or new parts of the Old World, or just to carry on carrying on—raising their children and trying to live decent lives.

Some readers may think this isn’t courage but is, instead, nothing but blind endurance—or misplaced willfulness. In the past, because people were poor, persecuted, or ambitious, they pushed their way into new lands. They shoved around others who suffered even more, as people who’ve read first hand accounts of the Native Americans’ march on the Trail of Tears know. Indigenous people did not survive such migrations without daily struggle against the odds, without unimaginable hardships. Minorities, dissenters, and even the much larger group of those who just lacked land and money, could not survive in the past without forcing themselves to carry on. That was life: nasty, brutish, and short.

But people lived it. Maybe they didn’t have any inkling that they could have ease; maybe they had no choice but to struggle. However, weren’t there always those who opted out of the effort, who took to their beds with nerves or palpitations? Who took to the bottle or opium? Who succumbed?

There may be a few people in today’s world who can claim a constant lineage of over-privileged ancestors, of those who never had to do anything except eat, sleep, and procreate. Most of us across the globe, though, are alive because our ancestors had the courage to carry on.

Should the word “courage” be saved for greater things? The red badge of courage in battle, for instance; the heroism of struggling for the good of all mankind; the steely nerves of those who pilot space shuttles or scale enormous mountains?

I look at my daughter, exhausted by childbirth, as she holds her newborn, and I think, no, this is courage. Looking into the face of a child and daring to love so completely that possibly fragile life, daring to take on this unbounded responsibility—this is courage.

Just because such courage is common, doesn’t make it any less courageous. As we salute courage—all forms of courage—let’s not forget the sea of ordinary audacity on which we’re all afloat, and the courage it takes to keep our heads above water.

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Author Bio: LUCINDA NELSON DHAVAN first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. She is still there. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing, and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper. She now feels she may have learned enough to write fiction and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.
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