I would prefer not to die anytime soon, but the thought of my end is often with me — not in a morbid, brooding way, but more like a I-hope-that-all-this-work-with-weights-and-walking-will buy-me-a-few-years kind of way. One recent morning just after seven I was grunting under a serious set of iron while bench pressing. I felt like a sweaty Puritan lord, virtuous all the way through. Curls followed and pull-ups, tricep pulls, dumbbell presses, squats, crunches and planks. If I stumble off a bridge tomorrow, I will look good in a suit in my pine box the next day.
What is that worth?
All that matters, really, is what we do with the time we have left, and weights and walking solve nothing there. What we have done before today vanishes, a memory of a fair wind, nothing more. Have we accomplished something today that adds to the well-being of the world?
I do not carry exacting standards about that term “well-being”. If I pull a boy scout from the jaws of a Nile croc, well, bloody hoorah, I will have done a deed of note, but those opportunities for heroism are rare, and of course, when and wherever the hammer falls, we have to perform with grace under pressure, that lovely and best definition of courage. There are no guarantees of how we will behave. Fear will rise up within us, and we will be called to the test. Maybe courage in the service of a greater good is the ideal definition of “well-being”.
I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement in the deep South in the early 60’s, and I have been thinking about the multitude of fearful possibilities that participants had to consider — arrest, jail, loss of work, beatings, and the realistic potential that they could be murdered. Thousands of men and women chose to walk towards these fears because they wanted the right to be full and complete American citizens without having to ask for permission and without having to grovel. They wanted their children to be rightful citizens without having to be afraid of a shot gun blast from a speeding car or dynamite blasts at Sunday church services.
Their daily fears might be separated into two categories – one in which they knew exactly what was coming and when, or another when they knew something would come, but they did not know when.
So imagine this: you are tossing in your bed in a darkened house on an empty street. The windows are open. You barely sleep anymore because you know that when they come, it will be at night. Your rifle is tucked into the corner. A car slows down and then stops near your house. You hear voices. Then the flames leap up.
Vernon Dahmer was a 53 year old black farmer in Forrest County in Mississippi in 1965 when less than 100 of 8000 voiting age black men and women were registered to vote because they were blocked from doing so by state officials. He chose to make his farm a place of refuge for civil rights workers. He chose to stand up against the Klan, against corrupt law enforcement, against night attacks, against the muscle of infuriated power. Bob Moses, the supernaturally courageous Mississippi organizer, knew the terrain in which Dahmer lived: “After the hunting comes the killing (55).”* Dahmer knew that they would come for him, but he did not know when.
Now imagine this: you are with others on a city street. When you turn the corner and walk into the darkness there, you will be beaten with fists and chains and pipes and bats. There may be men with guns waiting for you. No one will come to the rescue.
Andrew Young is leading a column of over 300 men and women on a peaceful march through St. Augustine, Florida in late May of 1964. “At the King Street intersection Police Chief Virgil Stuart halted the line to announce that ‘serious trouble’ was lurking just around the corner in the darkness (323).”* His police would provide no protection once the group turned the corner. Klansman waited in the shadows.
Young listened to him and then turned to the marchers. With tears flowing on his cheeks, he asked, “Do we stand back and give into our fear” or do we stay true to the old Negro spiritual that says, “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free (323).”* Every one of the marchers walked on.
Nothing happened that night. “Young theorized that the spectacle of Negro columns had paralyzed the Klan ambushers with temporary awe (324).”* But the paralysis did not hold. They paid the price. ‘Paying the price’ may be the prerequisite to doing something that will make a difference, that will produce the further tilt toward poise, civility and decency that all of us can see that the country requires.
The personal side to this beckons too. In “Ulysses” Tennyson wrote that “Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done ….” Obviously the organizers of voting registration efforts in Mississippi in 1964 did work of “noble note”, and many did so with large hearts, but they also had to have been conscious of their individual place within a cause greater then themselves. They chose to give up whatever comfort and protection their anonymity might have secured.
Minute by minute, time flies from us, from me. What comforts and protection am I willing to sacrifice so that when each day’s fair wind passes, my actions may have contributed to some reservoir of “well-being”? I don’t know.
* Pillar Of Fire: America In The King Years: Volume II, 1963-1965 by Taylor Branch