The best people
“The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.” — Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway saw more than his share of wounds and destruction. As a young ambulance driver he was seriously injured in Italy during World War I, and was present as a journalist at the Normandy landings in World War II. These experiences are branded into his great literary achievements. His biography suggests they also influenced him in hidden, less laudable ways.
This is one of those quotes I want to talk back to, no matter how true I know it to be. I want somehow to bring Hemingway back from the dead. I want to tell him to put that gun down and not willingly, intentionally join the destroyed, not let his greatest story end in tragedy.
I want to block out of my mind so many others, the noble people described by Hemingway– people famous or unknown, who despite (or maybe because of) their great virtues, have been chewed up and spit out by life, gravely or fatally injured by the cruelty of the world. It’s unbearable, heartbreaking, when real life stories don’t have happy endings. Like a child figuratively closing my eyes and covering my ears to shut out the chaos, humming to myself and rocking, I try to distract myself when life gets too sad. Look over there! Another hawk!
This, of course, is denial, as any number of cynics will insist.
But there’s another way to talk back to what Hemingway said. Because even when the best people are wounded or destroyed, the story doesn’t end there. Their sensitivity, courage, diligence and sacrifice live on, a legacy to all who were blessed to know them. Some of us believe that their souls live on, too, and can never be destroyed.
Which brings me around to the question that may lurk underneath the urge to deny harsh truth: where does that leave us? Don’t we want to appreciate beauty, take risks, be honest, and sacrifice for others when circumstances demand it? It sounds great, but as Hemingway says, it will leave us vulnerable. And vulnerability is not something the world honors or celebrates.
But is the alternative really any better? It’s not like being cowardly or dishonest or selfish will necessarily work out very well in the long run.
Sometimes I think the virtues Hemingway describes here have atrophied in our modern world, where it is so easy to be preoccupied with our possessions and interests and unending sources of stimulation. We lead comfortable lives, most of us, carefully constructed to shield our vulnerabilities and minimize the sacrifices required of us.
In my more optimistic moments, I hope that these qualities are not atrophied, but merely dormant; that if and when circumstances demand them, they will awaken in us and we will be equal to the situation, just as Emily Dickinson described in her inspiring, hopeful poem.
In any case, it seems worthwhile to aspire to such virtues, and take small steps to prepare for the possibility that greater steps may eventually be required of us. We can make time to appreciate something beautiful each day. We can reach out to others even knowing they may reject us. We can be honest even when it’s difficult, and we can, at least some of the time, put someone else’s needs before our own, whether that person is a thoughtless family member or an obviously tired, less-than-cordial customer service representative.
We may never make it into the history books or do anything that will be remembered for very long, but we can still be among those who are, Hemingway describes, “the best people.”
I really believe that.