The familiar rhythm of fear and courage

For some reason I cannot fully explain, today reminds me of that lone man standing in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. He wore a white shirt and black trousers and looked like a million other young Chinese students, except that he stood alone in front of tank after tank after tank. He bent his shoulders forward just slightly, the only indication of fear in his demeanor.

I wish I knew his name, just as I wish I knew the names of those driving the tanks, wish I could ask, “What were you thinking at that moment?” The tank drivers, maybe they were thinking, “Here stands the greatest threat to our way of life and politics and governance, this skinny man in front of us.” Or was it more like, “Here stands the greatest threat to my getting home tonight safely, to my ever seeing my family, to ever having a warm meal in a safe place again, because if I don’t mow him down today, I will be mowed down by the one giving orders. And as courageous as this man appears, I can’t allow him to keep me from the inevitable end of my day.”

Either way, at least for that moment, power shifted to that guy standing in front of rolling tanks. You don’t need a machine gun to kill a fly – unless you think the fly is more than a fly.

I remember that image so well maybe because it was a year after I graduated from college, and I still didn’t completely understand the power of such imagery. My friend Jeanne was a hall director at Northeastern in Boston, across the road from the Museum of Fine Arts. We would visit sometimes on the weekends, as I lived and worked not too far from her. She had that picture of the tank man of Tiananmen Square torn from the front page of the Boston Globe and taped to her olive-toned Frigidaire. She saw me looking at the picture, and asked, “Do you notice how his shoulders are slightly bent, how he shows his fear but still stands? This is so powerful.”

She was always pointing out things like that. She was an artist and we’d visit the MFA and she’d show me things in the paintings, how the color the artist chose, or the slight turn of the head of one of the female subjects, or the dark bark of the tallest tree set against a dull or bright or sparse or full background was indicative of something. It was always with intent.

There is a rhythm to fear and courage, individualism and governance, media and power, hope and survival that beats in my mind today and hearkens back to 1989. The heavy drumroll of negative inevitability – of party, of candidacy, of action or inaction, of policy, of rights – played with duty or glee by smiling professionals – sounds so much like the faceless tanks dully rolling forward under questionable motivation. Then the dissonance, the soaring melody of the human spirit uncloaked, standing alone, no finger to the wind of passing fancy but standing on sole principle: the sound of hope. It’s not about the latest debate, it’s about the freedom to disagree, to stand up to the rolling tank of prevailing opinion and say with the eloquent language of bent shoulder, “This is scary. And I will not be moved.”

I know it’s not nearly the same thing, 1989 China and 2016 America, but that’s what today feels like to me, that’s the song it sounds like on the wind. And just like the tank man of Tiananmen Square, the one who stood there immovable, I may never know its name.


Image by Manu Mohan via


6 thoughts on “The familiar rhythm of fear and courage

  1. Bill Waters says:

    Powerful, articulate, and timely! My wish is that a larger audience could read this! If that’s not possible, then I’m glad at least that *I* got to read it. :- )

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