Courage, Child

I admit it. I’m a scaredy-cat. Such a scaredy-cat that I don’t even like reading something like Tintin. (I know, I know.)

And it’s hard being a scaredy-cat in a world that provides a wealth of things to freak out about. Terrorists. Cancer. Restrictive governments. Health scares. Economic woes. Brutal murders.

Frankly, there are times when I can hardly bear the thought of all the things that could go wrong in my life, and in the lives of those I love.

I’ve been re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia since last spring. Earlier this week, I reached the end of The Last Battle. Now there’s a terrifying world. Dryads dying as their trees are slashed down. Talking Horses being made to work for the Calmorenes. Dwarfs being marched to the mines. And—worst of all—the Narnians are being told that it’s all under Aslan’s orders. How then can they oppose it? They must simply accept the brutal “truth” that Aslan is not as good as they thought he was. That Aslan and the Calormene god Tash are, in fact, one and the same.

King Tirian and his small band, who refuse to believe such lies, watch with horror as Narnia crumbles under this double tragedy. And yet despite the horror, Tirian and his friends don’t let fear get the upper hand. Roonwit the Centaur strikes the right note as he lies dying. He sends Tirian a message exhorting him “to remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy”.

And so they throw all their energy into a losing battle.

“You would not have known from Tirian’s face that he had now given up all hope. ‘Listen,’ he whispered in a matter-of-fact voice, “we must attack now, before yonder miscreants are strengthened by their friends.’

And they cling to the hope of what is beyond that battle:

“’I feel in my bones,’ said Poggin, ‘that we shall all, one by one, pass through that dark door before morning. I can think of a hundred deaths I would rather have died.’

‘It is indeed a grim door,’ said Tirian. ‘It is more like a mouth.’

‘Oh, can’t we do anything to stop it?’ said Jill in a shaken voice.

‘Nay, fair friend,’ said Jewel, nosing her gently. ‘It may be for us the door to Aslan’s country and we shall sup at his table tonight.’”

And Jewel is right. The happiest of happy endings awaits, in a country where one can’t be afraid even if one tries, and where it can truly be said, “The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

We need stories like that. Stories that call us to courage, and to hope. Stories that don’t make light of our fears, but that instead steel us to face them. That remind us that we can endure, even if—from our perspective—it’s a losing battle. And that reassure us that what’s on the other side of the stable door makes all the sadness now worth it. I find it so hard to believe such truths, but reading books like The Last Battle makes it a little easier to believe. Tirian would surely whisper to this scaredy-cat, as he whispered to Jill, “But courage, child: we are all between the paws of the true Aslan.”

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So do I

Such a commonplace expression. We use it and similar expressions day in, day out.

“I like truffles.”

“So do I.”

“I’m tired.”

“So am I.”

“I don’t like coffee.”

“Neither do I.”

But have you ever thought about what you need to know in order to correctly utter a little response like that?

Probably not. You have better things to do with your time. I can’t remember thinking about it either until the other week, when I had to prepare a language lesson on this very point for students learning English as a foreign language. Allow me, then, to enlighten you about part of what you’re unconsciously doing when you use one of these expressions.

First of all, you’re determining whether what the other person has said is positive (“I like truffles”), or negative (“I don’t like coffee”). If it’s positive, you begin your reply with “so”. If it’s negative, you begin with “neither”.

Secondly, you’re deciding which verb to use. If the other person has used a form of “have” or “be” (e.g. “I’m tired”), you use a form of the same verb in your reply (e.g. “So am I”). If the other person hasn’t used “have” or “be”—ta da! You drop in a form of the verb “do”, instead, like this: “I like truffles” – “So do I!”. Not, you will note, “So like I”.

Thirdly, you’re choosing the correct verb form. If someone refers to a past event and tells you, “I was tired”, you’d reply “So was I”, whereas if they tell you how they’re feeling right now (“I am tired”), you’d respond “So am I”.

Lastly, you’re keeping a firm grip on word order. Although the first person’s statement follows the normal pattern of subject and then verb (I like/I was/I did/etc.), you know you have to switch that order in your reply and say “So am I”, not “So I am”.

And to think that you did all that without even realising. Clever, huh?

It is amazing how children learning their native language pick up so much without having to be explicitly told. They figure out rules and patterns all by themselves. One of the most obvious ways you can see this is when you hear a toddler saying “I goed outside.” The little chap knows that to make the past tense of a verb you add “ed”. What he doesn’t yet know is that that rule, like so many others in the English language, has exceptions—in this case the nefarious little beings known as “irregular verbs”. He’s grasped the rules of the game and he’s doing his best to follow them. You can’t blame him if the verbs don’t play fair. He’ll learn how to deal with them in time.

What linguistic complexities we dance through every day without so much as a thought!

What was that you said? You think it’s fascinating?

So do I.

O, Wonder!

For our writing assignment the other week, Dr Rogers asked us to describe someone we know in 500 words or less, and to do it from the outside, rather than by going inside the person’s head, as he put it.

I chose my youngest brother. I’ve lived with him for all of his ten years, and I love him fiercely. I know him. But how do I effectively communicate that knowledge to someone who has never met him?  And—what’s harder—how do I communicate it from what can be seen of him on the outside, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions, rather than taking the lazy way out and saying “x makes him happy, y makes him sad”?

Guided by Dr Roger’s prompt questions, I had to think about concrete facts: what does Bro 5 do when I get him up in the morning? What is his daily routine? How does he talk? It stretched me to have to describe someone that way, but I ended up with a result that I was happy with—as was Dr Rogers, to my relief.

Of course, there was no way I could fully convey who Bro 5 is in 500 words or less. And even I, well as I know him, don’t know the essence of him. What vast unknowns we are to each other after all! Each of us with a lifetime of dearest hopes, darkest secrets, and most dreadful fears. In my absorption with the pressing demands of my own selfhood, I often forget that other selves are, as Dr Rogers reminded us, just as complex, full of what he described as “incongruities”—incongruities which show us to be individuals rather than stereotypes.

Last week, I took the train to visit a friend. As I sat engrossed in 84 Charing Cross Road, a man popped out from the seat behind me. He was perhaps in his early sixties, with a florescent yellow top and a big bushy beard. I think he got on the train with a bike. “May I see the front of your book?” he asked. “I’ve been reading it over your shoulder.” I showed him my book and told him a little about it, then he handed me his. “What do you think of that?” he asked. It was a thick enough book, silver-coloured, and I think it was about someone going on a quest to find out what snow really was. Or something like that. Whatever it was, he was enjoying it, but he was also curious enough about books in general to read over a stranger’s shoulder and then strike up a conversation with her.

If I’d been asked to pick a likely book enthusiast from amongst my fellow passengers, I would not have picked my bearded friend. A love of books wouldn’t have fitted in the stereotype I’d have boxed him into based on a cursory glance, and yet it formed a part of his character, making him more than just a bearded old guy on a bike.

It’s the incongruities, Dr Rogers said, that make people what they are.

There are no boring people.

Or, to put it more eloquently:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!