Courage (for Gordon Downie)

Courage, A-Maze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun, West End, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

We lost a good one this week in Canada, Gordon Downie, frontman, lyricist, songwriter for The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock powerhouse. In the 80s and 90s, they were probably my favourite band.

This song, Courage (for Hugh MacLennan), has always resonated deeply with me. In 1998, while spending six months bicycling across China, it inspired this blog post from the road. As it turns out, with all that’s going on in the world right now, it proves a timely reminder to get back on the path of love and light and insight. It was a path Gordon Downie forged and followed vigorously, right up to the very end.

Here’s to you, Gordon. And thanks, again, for all the insight.


Subject: Courage
Date: Fri, 28 Aug 1998 23:20:00 -0700
07:03 Wumao Hotel, Jiayuguan; Gansu — China :: MO 24 AUG 98
So there’s no simple explanation
for anything important any of us do
and yes the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
under pressure, under pressure

Courage, my word, it didn’t come, it doesn’t matter
Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time

The final stanza of Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)
The Tragically Hip
From the album Fully Completely (1992)

From time to time I receive email from people who visit the website, from subscribers to this distribution list, applauding the courage I possess to travel so much, for so long, to such difficult places as China and Vietnam.

I laugh a little, inside, at myself. The brave facade. I think about all the moments, all the momentous decisions when a modicum of that apparent courage would have altered my life, significantly, for the better. Love and opportunity lost, the difficult fork not taken, matching ideal and action: the self I want to be hides in the wings, under pressure, under pressure. I live with the consequences.

I was asked once, by a director of documentaries, the question he’d been asking the subjects of his series, “Giving it all up to live at the edge of the world.”

What is paradise?

I thought about this for a day, and responded:

Paradise is knowing who you are and
finding the courage to be that person.

Slowly, I am finding it — who I am, that is. And sometimes I realize I don’t like the person I find. Change. Change. Courage, it didn’t come, it matters.

Travel, the sideshow. The means. Travel feeds inquisitiveness, curiosity. I look into myself, into the wildly varied realm of humanity, and sort out what is me from what is simply human, and sort out what is simply human from the aberrations we impose upon one another, under pressure, under pressure.

This is the easy part of me, the natural part; this part needs no motivational kick to express. The opposite. I can’t stop myself. From what my parents tell me, I’ve been this way longer than I can remember. I just want to understand, everything. Nomading about the planet’s been the best way to do it for a while. Perhaps that time’s drawing to a close.

Still, as far as courage goes, except for the ideal of being there, except for the poring over the maps, the dreamy fantasies and building expectations for the journey to come, everything leading up to getting on the plane is an annoying hassle…”Oh, man, do I really want to go through all this?” Overcoming obstacles such as these isn’t an act of courage. No. No more an act of courage than getting up Monday morning after slapping the alarm clock and trundling off to work. It’s just work, habit, routine. Then, when the plane taxis out to the runway, you’re golden. The adventure begins, expectations shattered, reality unequaled by fantasty. That’s what keeps you working toward the goal.

So it’s not the inquisitive me who needs any courage. No, its the other aspect of myself I’m finding the courage for. What I am doing right now, this very moment.

So there’s no simple explanation
for anything important any of us do

People ask why I do this, keep an open journal on the net. Again, they marvel at the courage. Yet I am driven to it. Yes, the cliche: because I must. I always knew I would, in one form or another. The only change — I think, I hope — the reasons underlying the why. No simple explanation for the why, for the change. No simple explanation, I am realizing, for anything.

My journey into adulthood began with a jaded superiority. An angry young man. I knew all the answers. Simple explanations. Simpleton’s explanations.

I didn’t realize how far into oblivion I was. Before I can find the courage to be who I am, I must muster the courage to confront that person, know him and, ultimately, repair him.

and yes the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
under pressure, under pressure

Unfortunately, the angry young man was a coward, keeping his wisdoms largely to himself, saving his well-rehearsed witticisms to inflict on unsuspecting victims at parties, or share them among other fools of the same mind. He hovered in safe havens. Cowardice kept him a fool for a long time.

Then, electronic bulletin boards. Forums for exchanging thoughts, ideas, witticisms and wisdoms. Largely, proving grounds for cleverness. And he was often a clever fool. I go back and read some of his words from time to time, and shiver. But it caused the fool to confront himself. He thought he was bringing wisdom to others, felt his cleverness and jaded wit were valuable, thought he was finding his courage, but what was really happening, gradually, gradually he revealed himself to a very unappreciative audience…himself. Not courage but self-aggrandising bravado, the brave facade. Afraid to look in the mirror, but there it was, his reflection staring back at him.

He learned to argue well, and that arguing well was not in itself an avenue towards truth. He learned to write fluidly, vividly and realised the damage words could do. He learned, first, what a fool he was, then, that being a fool is undesireable only for those who do not realize they are fools. So much to learn, more than we can ever hope: the most important lesson.

23:03 Wumao Hotel, Jiayuguan; Gansu–China :: MO 24 AUG 98

But so slowly came these realisations. All this honing of wit served only the purpose of winning arguments, of perfecting debating tactics. Few people in the forum were learning anything, at least admitting to mistakes was a rarity. Rarely did anyone applaud another’s opinion or argument, unless they agreed with it from the outset. It was all about establishing turf, like dogs peeing on hydrants. And, overtime, participating in this piss fest grew quite dulling. Politics, I realized, amounted to the same thing with the disturbing consequence that society acted upon the results of these “debates”. Under pressure, under pressure. Living with the consequences.

18:28 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu–China :: FR 28 AUG 98

I saw myself, out of the corner of my eye. I saw the stupidity of the forums, of the people in them, and my own foolishness reflected in my participation. A change of poles. I move from negative, from attacking, from self-aggrandizing, from self-assured certainty; move to positive, to beauty, to harmonies, to the clarity of uncertainty. Enough coverage already of the ugliness, the imperfections, the cowardice, all about us that is darkness and fear. No need to add my own. Move to the light.

Microsoft folding shop in Vancouver dove-tailed nicely with the gradual self-discovery. Gradual.

No pressure.


It wasn’t a completely conscious process, but the world and everything in it has grown increasingly beautiful since April Fool’s Day, 1994 — the last day of my Microsoft tenure and the first day of…I’m still not sure what. Amazing what happens when you stop seeking the ugliness, stop cleverly attacking it and the people it attracts, stop praising yourself for your cleverness.

It’s amazing what happens when you use your writing to reveal the beauty you find, when you allow it to reveal yourself to yourself. It’s even more amazing what happens when you keep an eye out for beauty, search it out. After a while the beauty finds you, has a way of coming your way. Instant karma.

Someone forwarded a quote to me from the jacket of Sparring with Charlie: Motorbiking Down The Ho Chi Minh Trail, author unspecified:

There are no good books about pleasant journeys.
It is the job of the travel writer to have an awful time.

I responded:

As for the quote about travel writers having an awful time, I disagree. It applies to Paul Theroux, the old coot, but try Michael Buckley’s travelogue, Cycling to Xian in which he explicitly avoids discussing the worst moments of the trip. Or Bruce Chatwin who manages to brilliantly portray an endless fascination with wherever he is. Biking Beijing, by Diana Kingsbury, portrays a love for Beijing and its people and is a most pleasant read, even if some of the Beijing it describes has disappeared.

The responses I get from across the net indicate the people who read my stuff are most interested in the descriptions of people, the dialog I have with them and the descriptions of places I visit. Not always in that order, and some folks say they skip the description to reach the dialog.

I think it’s the job of the travel writer to bring the unrequited desires of armchair adventurers to life. Dozens of people have written to say they read me because I have taken on the adventure of their dreams. For a variety of reasons, they cannot — or feel they cannot — make these dreams come true. I’m the next best thing. My own mother wrote to tell me how proud she is of the son who took on the adventure she’s always dreamed of, and brings to life for her. (Never knew that about her dreams.)

Hope that book’s better than its author’s attitude. Otherwise, you’re likely in for an unpleasant, sarcastic read about an unenviable journey.

Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film Harvey says something like:

Mother told me, she said,
Son, if you really want to make it in this world,
you must either be oh-so-clever,
or oh-so-pleasant.

Well, for years I was clever;
I recommend pleasant.

Yes, I do.

Cleverness. Held in such high regard. Quentin Tarantino is oh-so-clever. And his world view oh-so-dark. We are seduced by the cleverness and, in time, grow accustomed to the darkness, a dingy uncomfortable sometimes vile home, but home nonetheless.

I tired of it all, recognized the weaknesses in my character which drew me into the fray. Now I try to be conscious of what I’m thinking, what I’m writing; try for the graceful result and, when writing, a loving commentary. Seek the beauty and reveal it.

To a Tendai monk, everything is wonderful.

who brought Mahayana Buddhism
to Japan in the form of Tendai.

Pleasantly seeking grace in a time of jaded indifference. Ugliness, unpleasantness, scandal, the sensational: these are easy enough to find in a society which promotes them in its fiction and its current events reporting. The trick, the courageous thing, is to keep these dark obsessions in context, to seek the beautiful, the small perfections, the harmonies, to seek love even while the news explains every night how much life sucks, how awful we are to each other, how horribly we die. The endless divisiveness of political partisanship brings us to the conclusion there is no common ground.

Do not turn to ignorance; do not discount the negative. Rather than pretend these palpable evils do not exist, choose not to participate in them, not to further them by adding your own cleverness to the thread, your own hate, your own disgust, or worst of all your own superiority. Choose instead to overwhelm the horrid with the beautiful, the spiteful with the forgiving, the hateful with the loving. Collect the positive and share it.

Writing and sharing the result, for me no longer acts of courage or even bravado. It is something I do. It’s increasingly less about being clever and preachy, though sometimes that creeps in. Old habits… It is about sharing, but it remains also the opposite of what I initially expected: a means for self-discovery in addition to self-expression. Writing for an audience reduces the inclination toward bull shit, toward the self-indulgent twaddle I’m hoping this post successfully avoids.

As for courage, well, that test comes to us on a daily basis. We fail; we succeed. How well we live depends not only on how bravely we choose, but how well we live with the consequences of the choices we make, courageously or cowardly, under pressure, under pressure. Courage is a hard standard to live by, but the consequences are easier to live with.