Yevgeny Yevtushenko unnerves me. Perhaps the less-than-sympathetic picture I get of him through his poem “Talk” puts me off, half-contemptuous of his contemporary readers who call him brave. What else unnerves me about approaching Yevtushenko is how little I know of Russian literature. So thick with culture and language, the words tie me in knots. It took me six months, nearly two decades ago, to read The Brothers Karamazov, and after the long slow slog to completing the book, I have never looked back.
Yet now I am drawn into “Talk,” in spite of my reluctance. The topic itself – courage – draws me in, and the respect with which the poet holds it. I have great admiration for risk-takers, mainly because, like Yevtushenko, “courage has never been my quality.” Mine is a low-risk personality, taking on what may look occasionally like a brave act out of sheer necessity to meet basic responsibilities. I am not the one who runs into a burning building to save a life. I’m the one who dials 9-1-1.
Such bravery astounds and mystifies me. I study what I can of courage, thinking one day I may learn what it takes to run in, not just dial out.
So I read Yevtushenko’s “Talk” as he tells us a few things about courage by saying what it is not:
1. A courageous act causes foundations to tremble. “No foundations trembled.”
A true act of bravery makes a real and lasting impact.It’s not extreme sport for the sake of adrenaline high. Courage is a game-changer.
2. Bravery requires an element of danger. “I did no more than write, never denounced” Denunciation implies risk. Yevtushenko was writing in the context of a totalitarian society in which denouncing someone in power was guaranteeing great risk to self. Bravery is dangerous.
3. Courage is art, not a job description. “(doing what anyhow had to be done)”
Yevtushenko says here that he did his job as a writer – he called 9-1-1 – nothing more, nothing less. Courage moves beyond the basic job description. As Seth Godin said (in Linchpin), “The job is what you do when you are told what to do… Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.”
4. Bravery goes past basic human decency to self-sacrifice. “…common integrity could look like courage.”
The last line of this poem comes with a sting to the reader. The poet is basically saying, “If this looks like courage to you, you should get your moral glasses checked.” Kind of harsh, but wake-up calls can feel that way. Honesty and integrity feed the soul, sustain the self. They are good and necessary. But bravery launches itself from this strong foundation and offers self as sacrifice for a greater good, for another. Courage gives it all away.
Yevtushenko was addressing the pre-Khrushchev Soviet Union political and social situation, not 21st Century America, but these principles still work for me. The stakes may be different, but courage looks the same as it did back then: self-sacrificing, risk-taking, art-making, game-changing, “I can’t believe she did that” acts of goodness.
While Yevtushenko may have been more concerned about politics, I would argue that bravery of this sort is a very personal and individualized thing. What represents risk to one person may prove as undaunting as falling out of bed to another. Traveling to the heart of India might not require courage from a regular world traveler, but for someone suffering agoraphobia, walking out the front door poses a very real and present danger demanding extreme bravery.
At times, the most foundation-shaking acts occur in moments of quiet courage between two people. For some those might be the “I’m sorry” moments, the “you were right” admissions, that cost everything for the teller and turn worlds upside down. Or right side up.
I believe we all have it in us to rise to this level of courage. I believe it is part of our wiring, the stamp of a self-sacrificing foundation-shaking Creator. Most of the time, though, we forget about the Creator’s watermark. Most days we do our job and call 9-1-1 and tell almost all of the truth. Most days we stand fairly steady on unmoving floors.
Most days we are so busy meeting our responsibilities that we forget to look in the mirror. We forget our wiring. Until we have to remember. Until someone else helps us remember.
I would like to remember and reclaim courage as my own quality. Maybe instead of carrying contempt for ourselves, like Yevtushenko, we can help each other be brave. What do you say?