There are as many types of courage as there are personalities and human struggles. There isn’t a blueprint with bullet points to follow, although I think we’d all agree that soldiers, police officers and firefighters are entitled to an automatic assumption of heroism (until and unless they contradict it by their own actions.)
But basically, courage comes in many colors, cadences and creeds. The teenager afflicted with an inoperable brain cancer who continues to play basketball until she can no longer hold the ball is the epitome of courage, more so than the young woman who, afflicted with a similar form of cancer, chooses to commit suicide and avoid the pain. We can have compassion for the one who chose a premature death, because none of us who has been spared that promised, anguished end has the right to judge (and yet I have, in memory of my brother, who also extinguished the light of his life by his own hand.)
But there is no courage in seeking an end to pain, even though many called Brittany Maynard heroic. It is a human impulse, and mere humanity is not courageous. On the other hand, Lauren Hill, who by her insistence on living the last moments of a cruelly shortened life with joy and purpose, raising millions of dollars for cancer research and turning her small candle into a towering flame that cursed the darkness, transcended mere humanity, and became immortal. That is courage. That is what should be remembered when we look upward for an example and not inward for an explanation.
These are the thoughts that were triggered by the announcement by ESPN that it would give this year’s “courage” award, named in honor of the great Arthur Ashe, to Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner. For those who have only a passing acquaintance with Ashe, it’s important to examine his life and the reasons that it became the model for true courage in the field of sports.
According to his website, ArthurAshe.org, the athlete was a “top ranked tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s” at a time when racism, never absent from the sports world, was more overt than it is today. He was raised in the segregated south, becoming the first African-American male tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament. He was a humanitarian, an educator and a role model throughout his life, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ironically, though, it was in the manner in which he faced death that he showed the measure of his courage. Ashe died in 1993 after contracting AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion. The dignity with which he lived the final, unfair chapter of an amazing human narrative made it impossible for ESPN to choose anyone else to represent the face of courage.
And while the winners haven’t always been sportsmen, they have always been exceptional for the contributions that they made to society, and not because of any politically convenient agenda. Here is a partial list of previous winners: Muhammad Ali (1997), Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick (2002), Pat Tillman and Kevin Tillman (2003), Nelson Mandela (2009), Pat Summit (2012), Robin Roberts (2013.) Each one of these honorees, from a great champion of a fighter who let us see him fade into the darkness of Parkinson’s with heartbreaking generosity, to the valiant civilians who stared death down on Flight 93 and sacrificed themselves for America, to the star safety-turned-warrior on the battlefield who, regardless of the ultimate conditions of his death, gave up the gilded trappings of gridiron glory and enlisted to serve, one among many. There is the giant who exchanged a quarter century and the best years of his youth for a guarantee of equality, and two fine women who battled and are still battling illnesses that steal strength and memory, but not hope and commitment.
These are all the different colors, cadences and creeds of courage. They are a pure reflection of Arthur Ashe and do honor to the award that bears his name.
But when I see Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner, the reflection I see is far from that purity. Jenner, an admittedly transcendent and historic athlete, could have been given the award years ago for winning the decathlon at a moment in time when the United States was still locked in a psychological and philosophical battle with the Soviet Union. When he raised that American flag and ran around the Olympic track with the wind of Mercury at his feet, he gave this country a reason to celebrate. Ironically, he now says that this was the moment in his life when he felt the most fear and most like a fraud. So perhaps the courage it took to overcome his doubts is the type that deserves a trophy and adulation.
Except that they’re not giving him an award for that. Jenner has been chosen because he has come out as a woman, has transitioned quite publicly, has laid it all out for us on the cover of a popular magazine. This is audacious, but in a society where we vilify those who support traditional values, it is hardly a courageous act to exhibit your newly acquired identity. Courage implies something less egotistical and more transcendent, like giving your life for your country, or showing the world that 28 years in prison can break your body but not your spirit.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who think Jenner is the epitome of courage, simply because he was able to say “I’m Caitlyn” in a world that still has a problem understanding the alleged fluidity of gender. They’re entitled to their opinions.
But I’m entitled to believe that on the night of the ESPY awards, Arthur Ashe will find Lauren Hill in that paradise they both surely inhabit, take her hand in his own, and raise it up.
Christine M. Flowers
Philadelphia Daily News