I can tell you what living boldly is not.
Living boldly is not flinging yourself randomly at every injustice or every cause. That may be bold. But it ain’t livin’. And it’s not effective at creating freedom. (To paraphrase the great trickster Abbie Hoffman: Random action produces random results: Why waste even a rock?.)
Living boldly is not being obedient while waving your arms and ranting about how bad everything’s getting. (Not even if you rant really, really forcefully and get lots of hits on your blog and have lots of followers on Twitter.)
Living boldly is not flipping off cops just to show you’re brave and defiant.
Living boldly is also not being forever strong and fearless. You can live boldly and still have weak moments, emotional meltdowns, failures, self-doubts and plenty of 3:00 a.m. fears for the future. (Ask me how I know.) Living boldly is what you do in spite of all that.
Living boldly is creating your own life in your own way, even if you’re depressed, discouraged, defeated, and downtrodden. Even if you fear — or are downright dead-solid certain — that the whole damn world is doomed.
I’m personally of the school of thought that leans toward doom. I don’t believe we’re going to save political freedom. One — of many — problems with doom is that, barring a Santorini moment (which, heaven forbid), doom takes a long time. Modern Cassandras like to cite the fall of the Roman Empire, and I agree it’s as if the American Empire is looking into a mirror. But it was hundreds of years from the decadence of Nero and Caligula to the final fall of Rome. It was, in fact, longer from Caligula to the fall than it’s been from the Declaration of Independence to the mess we’re in today.
Even with the speed-up of the Internet and the complications of global commerce … we could be in this awful in-betweenish state for a while.
If life matters to us, it’s our job to make the most of where we are right now.
Borepatch has written eloquently about triumph in adversity and about saints and heroes — in which he quotes at length from The Gospel of St. Joel of the Desert. Who in turn cites … um, me. And so it goes in the great downward spiral of empire’s end.
We keep talking to each other to keep our courage up. Sometimes we repeat the same things. But then, those things need and bear repeating.
Borepatch is right: decadent days, the end of empires, produce heroes and saints. (Martyrs, too, but let’s not get into that.) “Neither of those is easy, and so most people check out. Better the panem et circenses than the hard, lonely slog.”
In other words, agree or not, decadent days, the end of empires, and the brutality of states grasping to keep control also produce nations of cowards. That is the nature of our times.
We simply don’t have to be in that majority.
John Kindley dropped a wonderful link into a recent comment section: “The Forest-Goer” (aka “The Forest Fleer” or “Retreat into the Forest”) by Ernst Junger.
Junger was an interesting (though some might say dubious) character. Philosopher. Novelist. Warrior. Anti-Nazi conservative. A man who lived boldly.
[E]ven in the states in which the power of the police has become overwhelming, independence is by no means extinct. The armor of the new Leviathan has its chinks which must be constantly sought out, an activity requiring both caution and audacity of a kind hitherto unknown. … This becomes evident in periods of extreme danger, when the apparatus not only forsakes the individual but even turns against him. Then each individual must decide whether he wants to surrender or to persevere by relying on his own and innermost strength. In this case he may choose the retreat into the forest (Waldgäng).
The ship is a symbol of temporal existence, the forest a symbol of supratemporal Being. In our nihilistic epoch, optical illusions multiply and motion seems to become pervasive. Actually, however, all the contemporary display of technical power is merely an ephemeral reflection of the richness of Being. In gaining access to it, and be it only for an instant, man will gain inward security: the temporal phenomena will not only lose their menace, but they will assume a positive significance. We shall call this reorientation toward Being the retreat into the forest (Waldgang), and the man who carries it out the wanderer in the forest (Waldgänger). …
Wanderers in the forest (Waldgänger) are all those who, isolated by great upheavals, are confronted with ultimate annihilation. Since this could be the fate of many, indeed, of all, another defining characteristic must be added: the wanderer in the forest (Waldgänger) is determined to offer resistance. He is willing to enter into a struggle that may appear hopeless. Hence he is distinguished by an immediate relationship to freedom which expresses itself in the fact that he is prepared to oppose the automatism and to reject its ethical conclusion of fatalism.
But we are concerned here with the threat to which the individual is exposed, and with his fear, not with politics or political ideas. Fundamentally the individual is only interested in his profession, in his family, and in the pursuit of his inclinations, but, sooner or later, the age intrudes upon him. Either conditions gradually deteriorate or he is exposed to extremes. Expropriation, compulsory labor, and worse appear on his horizon. Before long, he will realize that neutrality would be tantamount to suicide–you must either howl with the wolves or fight them. Where in his distress can he find a third so solution which leaves him some freedom from the dynamics of the events? Only in his existence as an individual, in his own Being which remains unshaken. Anyone who has escaped from catastrophes knows that, in the last analysis, he owed his rescue to simple human beings who did not submit to the power of hatred and fear or to the automatism of slogans.
The hero does battle with the forces of collapse and decadence. The saint turns his back and seeks to live by principle. But there’s not much of a line between heroes and saints at times like these. They make different choices, but from similar motives and for similar purposes.
Junger’s “forest-goer” is a little of both — a saint who retreats in order to resist. Someone who sees the necessity of retreat, but who recognizes that retreat is a form of resistance that may be the first step toward fatal confrontation. Someone who finds the security of his own heart and mind and uses that strength for whatever is to come.
Saints. Heroes. Forest-goers. Outlaws of all kinds. All live boldly.
But how can somebody who withdraws from the world be in the same category, or doing as much good, as somebody who picks up a sword or a gun or an idea or a bullhorn and fights tyranny?
Because each one first determines to be an individual. An owner of his own life. A chooser of her own choices. An actor of his own acts. A pioneer of her own path. Each chooses to be his own center of strength, truth, and security (or to choose his own center in the spiritual realm).
And every deadly danger to Leviathan begins right there. The actions (whatever they may be) that come from the decision to be a Self, stand as a Self, and live as a sovereign, thinking, self-determining being are the ones with the most power to vanquish tyranny.
Merely by making that choice, and honoring others who make it, we live boldly. We are free.
And as a bonus, we become very, very dangerous.