In the battle of life, a joy that only the ferocious can comprehend

I recently treated two young men, both injured in the same football game.  On the way out, one passed the other in the hall, injuries treated and dressed. “See you next game!” they said.  They laughed and looked forward to the struggle.

My wife and I have tried to raise our kids that way.  To enjoy life, to move through difficulty and injury. They suffer from having a physician father, so visits to the ER (for them and their cousins) often equate to visits to the dining room table or the pantry pharmacy for whatever over the counter drug will do the trick.  “You’ll be fine,” is a commonly spoken phrase at Leap General, where mama and papa are the only staff available for consultation or second opinions.

We’ve seen bicycle wrecks (from my sons inexplicably “playing chicken with a tree”), scorpion stings and briar cuts from running through the woods in sandals.  We’ve had burnt fingers from working in our very hot coal-fired smithy and various episodes of cough, cold, fever, ear-ache and vomiting.  The kids have had wounds from arrows (covered wisely with foam balls on the tip). Bruises from heavy plastic training swords are not uncommon.

The lesson we hope to instill is simply this:  Get on with it.  Get back in the game of life. Get a bad test score?  Try harder.  Feel afraid to stand in front of people?  Give it a shot anyway.  Fall off the bike?  Get back on. (We don’t have horses.) Life is like that.

The thing is, life is a battle, whether you like that bellicose image or not.  In our brief sweep of years we will struggle with health, education and work.  We will struggle to protect our families,  practice our faith and ensure the future of the Republic.

Sometimes illness will win. Friendships may falter.  Education may not be enough.  Careers may wax and wane.  Our beliefs will be challenged.  Things won’t go our way.  Nations will fall.

To which we must say, “press on.” We have to move past excuses and pain, past the fear of uncertainty or risk.  We have to step out and once again create a nation where failure and struggle are sources of motivation and inspiration, not excuses to surrender.

Much has been written about the age of exploration and colonization.  About the terrible things  done in the name of nation, wealth or progress.  Some are true.  But we would certainly be better if we could only recover that love of danger, discovery and uncertainty.  It was the thing that opened continents and took us to the moon.  It was the spirit that defeated tyrants, diseases, injustices and ignorance with the same passionate joy.

We have become timid and fearful.  We act as if failure must be rescued, that all risk must be mitigated by the herd, that greatness is the same as arrogance, or progress the same as regress.  We turn things upside down by blaming everyone else for our inadequacies and expecting legislators or executives or courts to sooth our hurt feelings by mandating equality of all outcomes, by stretching a net across the chasm of public life so that we can only fall so far … and only climb so high.

What am I saying?  A nation that foments and grows weakness and incapacity, that shields its populace from every risk, criticism, pain or uncomfortable truth is a nation that will not endure.  A nation that scoffs at success built on struggle and rewards bad decisions with bribes from the public coffers is a nation doomed.  And a nation of people for whom even the slightest discomfort requires anesthesia is a nation drifting off to an endless sleep of irrelevance.

Much has been written by wise men down the years about this, by men like Kipling and Edgar Guest.  But my favorite comes from Edgar Lee Masters, in his Spoon River Anthology, a series of poems in which the dead look back on life.  Lucinda Matlock, a pioneer woman, describes her joys and sorrows with no regret and condemns her descendants   “Degenerate sons and daughters, life is too strong for you.  It takes life to love life.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Neither could the two boys I saw in the ER that night.  Because in the battle of life, win or lose, live or die, there is secret joy that only the ferocious can ever comprehend.

Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at edwinleap.com and is the author of The Practice Test.

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