Sometimes, you have to quit forward.
A few years ago, I was in Yosemite Valley, in Northern California, talking to some of the rock climbers who scale the vast granite walls. Some routes climb more than half a mile over the valley floor, with a pitch beyond vertical—meaning they overhang. This means that once climbers are at least a couple of rope lengths above the starting point, they can’t rappel back down, since the rope would hang too far out from the wall. The climbers explained that if one of them were to get sick or injured beyond this point of no return, the only way to get home is to continue climbing up to the valley rim where they can hike back to town. Since some of these routes can take a week to complete, any problems past the first day means six more days of climbing with a sick or injured partner. They called it “bailing up” instead of bailing out.
Sometimes, the only way out of a crisis is through it. American soldiers in World War II were in the service for the duration of the conflict or until they were dead or too injured to serve anymore. Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain during that war, actually inspired the nation by bracing it for the reality that the only path to victory was to persevere through whatever lay ahead.
There is a dangerous softness growing in the center of our culture. It is not just weak thinking or sloppy morality. We have lost the virtue of fortitude: perseverance, grit, rawhide toughness. It is not necessarily a Christian virtue. It helped the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae to hold their ground, it got Alexander’s Macedonians to India and back, it kept Caesar’s Tenth Legion in their ranks in the face of barbarian charges, it drove the Norsemen in their dragon ships across the cold waves to Newfoundland, and it was at the heart of the Samurai’s code. Those pagan cultures had plenty of vices, but courage and fortitude were among their virtues.
Some people use “cowboy” as a derisive term for the rawhide character of the American ideal. They mean it to be insulting, but don’t seem to understand that many of us admire the image of the cowboys, mountain men, and settlers who were tanned as leather and tough as nails. They gave us our liberty.
The problem with America today is not too much of the cowboy character, but too little. Freedom and prosperity are earned and kept by tough and brave men and women who know how to hold ground, endure hardship, and press on to the finish—without whining or needing a support group. We are badly in need of more people like that. They are still among us, and we should be holding them up as our heroes and role models. We should, must, become a strong people once again. Then the truly weak, not merely the weak hearted, will be safe in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Sometimes, you are so far into a mess, so far past the point of no return, that the shortest way out is to press on. Stop looking back. Don’t whine. Work out the problem, and keep going until you’re out the other side.
© Greg Smith, 2013