Aristotle teaches us any number of important things about courage in his Ethics. Notably, we should recognize that courage is that quality of character that allows us to act in the proper way even when our physical safety is at risk. He distinguishes it from foolhardiness (whereby we rush in when angels rightly would not tread) and cowardice (when we decide not to do the proper thing on account of the fear of our own well-being). Aristotle’s lessons have stuck. We tend to think about courage in terms of acting in the face of threats to our well-being, though perhaps we have widened that a bit to include threats to our moral, as well as physical, well-being. We can certainly exhibit courage when we stand against wrongdoing, even when there are no physical threats against us. Ridicule, ostracism, and calumny may not be the same as death and dismemberment, but they are things that press us to remain silent even when we know we shouldn’t. My father-in-law turns 70 today and he exhibits daily a sort of courage that many know in practice but few of us recognize in speech and I thought I would jot down a few notes in honor of this most courageous man.
I first met Jim Trieschmann over two decades ago when I traveled to Athens, Georgia in (successful) pursuit of his daughter, Martha. Jim was a chaired Professor of Risk Management and the Associate Dean at UGA’s Terry School of Business. He had published the leading textbook in his field and was the youngest president of his professional organization ever. He was, in other words, highly successful in every sense of the word.
Lurking behind that success was trouble, though. Jim’s back hurt, and not just in the way that many middle-aged men’s backs hurt. Jim’s back was giving him excruciating, near disabling pain. It still does, over 20 years later, every single day. Jim suffered from a disease that caused all the vertebrae in his back essentially to disintegrate. Needless to say, slivers of bone impinging on the nerves running up and down your back is unpleasant and Jim has endured two decades of constant pain, multiple surgeries (one of which left him with a staph infection in his spinal column) and a slow, persistent decline. Forced to employ large amounts of powerful painkillers, Jim spends a good portion of his day in bed, walk s very unsteadily (and usually with the help of a walker), and can only make occasional forays outside the home. (We took him to go see the movie “Lone Survivor” this past weekend—it was the first movie he’d seen in a theater in years). For a man who had once played football at the University of Arkansas, it has been a very tough time, to understate things by several orders of magnitude.
And, yet, he has endured. When his back got bad enough that he could no longer garden, he figured out a way he could lie on his side in the garden and plant his beloved daffodils. (His yard in Athens had literally thousands of daffodils, varieties that would give him blooms from early February until late March). When he couldn’t run any more, he would walk, carrying ski poles to help support his weight. He refused to give in and give up. We don’t recognize that kind of endurance very well in our society. Perhaps because in the age of streaming movies and downloaded book, the persistence of a man over two decades seems hard to grasp. I think it’s something more, though: I think it is more the case that we just have a difficult time in grasping how Jim’s endurance is a kind of courage, maybe a kind more difficult and even admirable than the usual sort.
Consider the movie we took Jim to last weekend: Lone Survivor. It tells the quite heroic story of four Navy SEALs (and their compatriots) as they fight and mostly die battling the Taliban in Afghanistan. We see in the movie incredible feats of physical and moral courage, not least of which was the decision on the part of some Afghani villagers to shelter the last SEAL even though they knew it would bring brutal Taliban retribution. Don’t get me wrong: those soldiers and Afghanis exhibited true courage and they deserve to be honored. But Jim’s persistence over the past 20+ years is just as much a kind of courage, a choice to endure the sufferings of his condition and refuse to give up. In an age when we are ever increasing the categories of persons that may be killed (sometimes with their own consent) on account of their “life prospects” it is a testament to Jim and his courage that he has endured so well.
I have, we all have, any number of irritating and frustrating things in our lives. (No doubt I am the irritating or frustrating thing in some people’s lives). Some of them we can avoid or get rid of, but others we must simply endure. When those things come, and they most surely will if they have not already, how will we meet them? For my part, I hope I will do so with a steadfast faith and a steady endurance that I learned at least in part from my courageous father-in-law, Jim Trieschmann.