Grace under Pressure

A paradox of courage is that if you are never afraid, you never need to be brave. Bravery is for cowards. Seriously.

Hemingway seems to have worried about the true nature of courage a LOT. He offered a lovely definition of it, “Grace under pressure.” It’s lovey but vague. Grace is one of those words that’s so ineffable it’s difficult to capture and pin down. Pressure? What? Running late? Or something more dramatic like being shot at.

Basically it means not losing your shit when it would be completely reasonable to lose it.

For Hemingway, reason is part of the scenario. A brave person exhibiting grace under pressure must be 1) afraid, 2) smart enough to know that he’s in danger and 3) aware of his options.

Then things kind of fall apart for Hemingway, in my view. Courage is something you take home with you, and people have contempt for you if you haven’t shown it even when they have no idea at all what it was like in the moment when you were not brave. That dynamic is a motive behind several of his stories. And, even for the guy who SHOWS grace under pressure, there’s no guarantee of comprehension or acceptance from others.  How can they comprehend or accept experiences that are far, far away from the lives they lead? Why does Hemingway care?

Many of his heroes reach a moment in which they transcend their preoccupation with the opinions of others. That’s another common motif in his novels and stories. It leaves me thinking that might ultimately be what courage means for Hemingway. That’s a paradox, too, especially for a guy who makes a living as a writer, which demands public acceptance.

I’ve been accused of bravery several times in my life, but I don’t see that I’m brave at all. I was “brave” to pull up stakes in California and move all alone to Colorado to a town where I didn’t know anyone. But there were external imperatives and I had a lot less choice than most of those people calling me brave seemed to understand. The biggest imperative was financial. I couldn’t afford to stay where I was. I had to go somewhere. I am from Colorado and hadn’t wanted to move away in the first place. It was a logical decision. Then, having fixed on that, I had to find a place with houses I could afford. It wasn’t courage. It was a limited income, not bravery.

Necessity — preserving your life and love, such as Santiago’s love for the fish, his love for the sea — often appear to others as courage. But no. That little kid hiding behind his mom,  wondering about the tall stranger who is his grandfather, previously unknown to him, that little kid is the brave one. The quivering pup behind the bars at the shelter, huddled in a corner, is the brave one. The young teacher about to walk into her first class EVER, racing to the ladies room 9 million times in the 15 minutes before the bell rings is the brave one.

11 thoughts on “Grace under Pressure

  1. I always thought Hemingway was overcompensating for…the usual. His use of the Mannlicher–Schönauer rifle in both his stories (notably “Francis Macomber”) and in real life pretty much sealed the deal as far as I’m concerned. Having said that, I still liked “The Old Man and the Sea” an awful lot when I was a young kid.

    • I agree — he had a fixation on his small hands. I loved the Old Man and the Sea, but not when I was a young person. I began loving it when I was in my mid/late 20s and had failed at a bunch of stuff. I was precocious in that way! 🙂 I also love The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Very wise story. 🙂

  2. I wasn’t a big Hemingway fan, but I’ve been surrounded by men who found him fascinating. I liked some of his short stories much better than his longer works. When he was brief, he was very sharp.

    I get accused of bravery often, but what people are talking about isn’t bravery: it being clever enough to survive and even thrive. Brave is only when you have a choice to jump in and help … or not. Taking care of yourself isn’t brave. It may be clever, smart, interesting and very funny … but not brave.

  3. Bravery is the ability to maintain control of oneself despite being scared shitless. Someone who is never scared may just be confident in situations that frighten most people. It takes bravery to learn to swim if you are afraid of the water. If you were never afraid of the water to start with, that’s just confidence.

    We have to keep confronting things we fear if we are to be confident people. So I can let a tarantula crawl all over my hand and find it interesting. I am confident it won’t hurt me (much). When I was much younger, the same thing would have scared me stiff and took courage to allow. Most people never bother to try to overcome fear because the process is scary.

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