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Francis Macomber and Courage

In my life, I haven’t had much need for courage. And so I haven’t thought much about it, until reading a short Hemingway story.

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened,” it begins. We learn that the wealthy 35-year-old New Yorker, Francis Macomber, had proved a coward when, on a great game hunt in Africa, he fled from a lion. The next day he flees again, and his scornful wife cuckolds him with their guide.

Francis renews himself the next day by shooting a bull. He’s ecstatic. “For the first time in his life he felt wholly without fear.” He shoots two more bulls before realizing the first was alive and hiding in the bushes. On this third encounter, he holds his ground.

It’s a great story. Like many stories of bravery, it makes one wonder how you’d act in their stead. Without being tested, how can one know if you’re courageous? This insecurity about courage in the face of death shows up in another author I’ve been reading. The Roman stoic, Seneca, in his old age, wrote: “All that I’ve done or said up to now counts for nothing. My showing to date, besides being heavily varnished over, is of paltry value and reliability as a guarantee of my spirit. I’m going to leave it to death to settle what progress I’ve made.”

Perhaps the cuckolded Francis went Africa to explore this part of his soul. Maybe this is why some men crave war.

There are other types of courage besides standing firm in the face of death—the principled politician preserving institutions in tense times, the child going down a steep slide, the woman wearing an unusual outfit—yet these seem less admirable. Even courage in the face of death can be graded, as the adulterous wife retorted “you’ve chased some helpless animals in a motor car and you talk like heroes”. Standing firm for angry charging bull is less worthy than standing firm to an unjust invader.

I wonder whether I’ll ever have an opportunity to explore or habituate courage in myself. Should I seek out such opportunities, like Francis did when he went big-game hunting in Africa?