The best people

The young soldier Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I.
This public domain photo was taken in 1918, available via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.

20 Comments

  1. Good morning, Julia! Thank you for this post, and also the Dickinson poem. So true; the virtue, wisdom, and other good things don’t die just because a person does.
    Blessings on your week!

    • Thank you Susan! I am looking forward to seeing you soon!

  2. This is one of my favorites Julia! I am always praying that when or if the time comes I will be brave and courageous. Love to you and Matt!πŸ’“πŸ˜ŠπŸ’“

    • Thank you Cherie. I think you already live courageously, so you will be well prepared. ❀ Thanks for being here.

  3. Chris

    Julia,
    Great post! This is why you write, or one of the reasons. You’ve given us all pause for a moment, to reflect upon our own goodness, and determine if we’re living those virtues. I’m sure we all fall short on many occasions. I agree, though, there’s no better alternative. As the apostle Paul said, “we are in this world, but not of this world”. If one believes as we do, then living out the virtues described above, in spite of so called ‘vulnerabilities’, is the better path.
    Have a wonderful week!

    • Thank you Chris. The better path, or as Jesus described it, “the narrow way,” is definitely not the easiest. But it has the best views. πŸ™‚

  4. Paula Escobell

    Oh, Julia- I do too! May we never stop striving…

    Blessings,
    Paula

    • Amen, Paula. I am always so happy to see you here. ❀

  5. Rene

    This reminds me of the Freedom Writer’s story. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, one of the students was distraught because Anne hadn’t survived; another pointed out that in a way, Anne had survived because her words live on.

    • Rene, wasn’t that a beautiful story? I think the scene you describe was the climax of the film. The young student felt so betrayed, at first, to find that the happy ending she had imagined was not the real one. That scene was memorable to me because I understood that girl’s pain, and to some extent, it’s what I feel every time I’m smacked with the sorrow of life. It’s painful, but it does help us come to terms with the bigger story, where all the happy endings ultimately reside. I think Anne Frank understood that.

  6. Life is a series of choices where even the seemingly insignificant ones have extraordinary power to transform lives. One simply conversation, can change the trajectory of a journey forwards. Another thought provoking post – a great way to start a new week.

    • Thank you, Clanmother. It’s sobering to realize how small actions can reverberate. Hopefully the fearful aspects of that understanding will help us to act often and thoughtfully, rather than draw back in defense or fear of making a mistake. I appreciate your presence here!

      • I love our conversations!

        • So do I! πŸ™‚

  7. Sheila

    Good morning, Julia. I often think what really makes us special are the unnoticed deeds, the things that are for betterment but without fanfare. Maybe those who will never know fame or fortune are just as deserving of a statue or honor but don’t require it. We are living in a world so full of self centered and thoughtless ways and people with little regard for others. How did we come to this? So today I’ll strive to continue doing little things but without praise, just the delight it gives to me. Bill laughed last week when he overheard me say, β€œI like me!” Oh, and I really like you! πŸ’›

    • Sheila, I often find myself asking “How did we come to this?” and to be honest, sometimes it’s my own conduct that convicts me to ask the question. I do think that in our lifetimes– those of us who are “a certain age” anyway– we have seen our own humanity eroded and drowned out by technology. In my opinion we have to make a conscious choice to dig in and act like human beings even as we are forced, more and more, to deal with robots instead of people in so many situations. Part of this is doing what you just did — saying (without shame or apology) “I like me!” when we catch ourselves being kind or doing something encouraging…or maybe even just BEING ourselves. Gloria, Jeff’s aunt who is a psychotherapist and a good friend of mine, once quoted somebody– I forgot who– who said “we are human beings, not human doings.” πŸ˜€ By the way I like you too! And I’m so happy you like me! Mr. Rogers would be proud of us for saying that.

  8. Alan Malizia

    Julia, Wonderful post.
    You mention virtue often in this post. Virtue, like learning to play a musical instrument, is mastered in time with practice which becomes habitual. I say habitual because when practiced enough it become second nature. The same can be said of the mastery of virtue’s counterpart; vice. When vice becomes second nature one is not likely to be proud of it. Virtue is the only way to happiness because it garners the love of God. For God is love and in Him is the only happiness that satisfies. The person of vice, no matter how often he experiences worldly satisfaction, finds it never seems enough. Therefore he will never know happiness. And in that, vice will not secure love nor know the happiness that can only be found in God.
    – Alan

    • Alan, I think that “never enough” cycle you describe is what lies beneath so many addictions– gambling, substance abuse, or whatever obsessions ensnare people. Good habits are definitely a formidable ally against not only addictions, but against the despair that prompts them. My Daddy used to say over and over that love was an act of will; that if we waited until we felt mushy emotions to do anything positive, we might be waiting a long time. But as you suggest, just the act of helping others can create the emotion, because we do start to love whatever absorbs our time and energy, even if we did not love that person or object in the beginning. Or as Jesus put it, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Thanks for being here and being part of the conversation!

  9. Susan

    Julie, this post fits so perfectly with the title of your blog ❀ .

    • Thank you, Susan. I’m so happy you are here!

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