Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Poem: "Courage, a Contradiction in Terms"

This poem came out of the September 18, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It inspired and sponsored by [personal profile] mama_kestrel. It also fills the "Self-Blame" square in my 6-4-18 Mixed card for the Winteriron Bingo Adventure fest. This poem belongs to the Big One and Granny Whammy threads of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features minor social angst, recent major character death, the aftermath of loss, self-blame, discomfort with heroism, moral injury, identity injury, difficult differences between military and civilian thinking, the challenges that poses in mental care, complex end-of-life issues including Helen's choice to risk her life on purpose, taking responsibility for possible collateral casualties of that choice, some downsides of superpowers, discussion of what heroism and courage really are, and how Junket is not a hero even though he acts heroically on occasion, discomfort with gratitude, superpowers acting up, mental injuries are real injuries, and other challenges. This poem may be especially fraught for anyone who has lost someone to sacrifice or suicide. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.


"Courage, a Contradiction in Terms"

[Monday, May 30, 2016]


Junket was playing CarGo
in the game room when Shawn
came downstairs and said,
"Someone to see you, sir."

Saving the game, Junket
got up and said, "Who is it?"

"Eugene Jacoby," said Shawn.

Junket squeaked and scrambled
toward the door. "Tell me you didn't
leave him sitting in the foyer!"

"I offered to take him upstairs,
but he insisted on waiting for you
and joked that he already had a seat,"
Shawn said. "When I left, he was
examining the compass rose
with great interest."

Eugene Jacoby was one of
Granny Whammy's best friends,
co-creator of the famous "Casualties"
line of toy soldiers. Junket didn't know
how he was going to face the man, but
knew he'd better get to it right away.

"Sorry to keep you waiting,
Mr. Jacoby," Junket said
as he came into the foyer.

"No trouble at all, Junket,
and I've told you to call me
Eugene," the old man said.
"There are some things that
I think you should hear."

Junket hid a wince. "Yes, sir."

"Shall we ride the flamingos
upstairs?" Eugene said.

"Of course," Junket said.
He followed behind as Eugene
rolled his wheelchair into the elevator,
which indeed had a wall hanging of
flamingos on the back side.

Upstairs, Junket headed for
the living room, but Eleanor
pointed her enameled cane back
the way they had come and said,
"If it's a private conversation,
gentlemen, feel free to use
the master retreat instead."

Junket looked back at Eugene.

"Thank you, madam, that would be
most welcome," Eugene said, and
deftly rolled back to the elevator.
"Junket, if you would lead the way?"

The master retreat was a roomlet
between the third floor landing
and the master bedroom. It had
leather loungers, a kitchenette,
and an entertainment center.

"May I get you anything before
we get started?" Junket asked,
hovering over the minifridge.

Eugene looked around the room at
Eleanor's collection of memorabilia
from classic movies. "Is it too much
to hope for Stewart's root beer?"

"Coming right up," Junket said as
he fetched bottles for both of them.

"Thank you," Eugene said,
transferring to a lounger.
"Oh, these are wonderful."

"Yes, the comforts of home
make life a little more bearable
these days," Junket said.

Eugene gave him a sharp look.
"You're not holding up well
at all, are you, Junket?"

"Not really, no," he admitted.
"I'm not a hero -- I was trying -- but
mostly I just found more reasons
why I am not a hero."

"I thought it might be
something like that,"
Eugene said. "When I
heard what happened,
I figured I should come out
and tell you some things."

"Like what?" Junket asked.
"If it's more EFA, I'm covered.
They sent me home with
an Emotional First Aide,
which is ... nice, but it
only helps so much."

"Civilian?" Eugene asked.

"Uh, yeah, why?" Junket said,
mouthing the rim of his bottle.

"That would be why it's not
helping much," Eugene said.
"You're missing some pieces of
vital information, and you're not
going to get them from civvies."

"Hey, Kay is good at what
she does," Junket protested.
"It's not her fault that I make
a terrible hero and shouldn't try."

"Did you do what Helen told you?"
Eugene asked, looking at him.

Junket flinched away. "Yes.
I just wish that I hadn't."

"Then you did the heroic thing,
and the right thing," Eugene said.
Then he sighed. "We were hoping
this wouldn't happen, but it was
always a possibility, so we made
some plans just in case. I'm
part of the backup for that."

"I don't understand," Junket said.

"What did Helen order you to do?"
Eugene said. "I have a good idea,
but I need to hear it from you."

"Evacuate the second floor,"
Junket said. "The building was
trying to collapse all around us,
the mortar was gone -- she wedged
herself in the door to hold it up --"
His voice cracked and broke.

"How many lives did we save?"
Eugene asked, pressing onward.

"I don't know. Dozens, probably,
the building was swarming with
volunteers," Junket said. "I
could have saved her, but
she wouldn't let me!"

"Helen didn't want to be
saved, she wanted to save
other people," Eugene said.
"It's never easy to be the one
left behind, son, and that part
never gets any easier. It's
what she wanted, though,
so thank you for that."

"What do you mean
by that?" Junket said.

"Helen was old, even
a little older than me, and
I'm a shriveled up old stick,"
Eugene said, tapping the stump
of his thigh where the wrinkles
made his skin look like corduroy.

"So?" Junket said. "Everyone
knows that. She joined the Army
for World War Two, after Pearl Harbor."

"Think about it," Eugene said. "She was
still healthy, but her strength was starting
to go. She didn't want to spend a decade or so
slowly dwindling. So over the last few years, she
started to look for ... opportunities. She went
back to taking field missions that she had
stepped away from earlier, the kind where
she could make a real difference."

Junket thought about that, and
listened between the lines a little.
A chill trickled down his spine.

"You're saying that Granny Whammy
was suicidal?" he squawked.

"No, of course not," Eugene said.
"She would never -- well, never
outside certain military situations.
This wasn't despair, it was courage."

"That doesn't make any sense,"
Junket complained, frowning.

"Courage, a contradiction in terms --
a strong desire to live taking the form
of readiness to die," Eugene explained.
"Helen wasn't looking for a way to kill herself,
she was looking a meaningful death, a moment
where she could trade her life for many others."

"It sounds the same to me," Junket said.
He had to dig in his pocket for tissues.

"Well, you're not a soldier, or a hero,"
Eugene said, patting him on the shoulder.
"For Helen, this was the best possible outcome --
she got exactly the kind of death she wanted,
quick and clean while saving other people.
You gave her that, so thank you for it."

Junket shook his head. "Please don't
thank me for that," he whispered.

"Stings, doesn't it?" Eugene said.
"That's how I always feel when
people thank me for my service.
Some veterans like it -- Helen
always did -- but to me, it's
just a painful reminder."

"Why?" Junket wondered.
"I mean, if it's not prying to ask."

"I lost my legs on the beach at Normandy,"
Eugene said, tapping his thighs. "Not many
of us who stormed the beach even reached it, and
not many who reached it ever made it off again. Even
after I was hit, I crawled up to a machine gun nest and
started slitting throats. But the 'Nazi bastards' were
just kids -- fourteen, fifteen, Germany had run out
of adult soldiers by then. Not a good memory."

"Shit," Junket said, staring at him. "I'm sorry.
I didn't mean to bring up something so awful."

"War is always awful, son, that's the nature
of the beast," said Eugene. "All we can do
is hope that our sacrifice means something."

"This is why I'm not cut out to be a hero,"
Junket muttered. "It's horrible."

"I know," Eugene said. "But
for some of us, it's what we
live for, and what we'd like
to die for. Can you set aside
your own perspective, and
look for Helen's instead?"

Junket dragged his thoughts
back to that day -- how big and
strong she had seemed before
the end, how vital as she held up
the whole building with her bare hands.

She'd been smiling a little, he realized,
grim and fierce under the mortar dust.

She had sent him away, twice, knowing
exactly what could have happened, and
what indeed had happened in the end.

"Her heart gave out, they think,"
Junket said. "It's a known risk of
pushing Super-Strength too far."

"That sounds about right," Eugene said.
"I've heard that soups have ways of
pouring extra power into what they do.
She would've given it everything she had."

"Yes, we do. Anyone can gain a little edge,
but pulling out all the stops is really risky --
and she did it on purpose," Junket said,
slumping forward to lean on his lap.

"Well, part of it," Eugene said.
"Helen knew what she was doing
when she grabbed that doorway --
but if everyone had cleared out, she
would have left. She just would have
been the last one to leave the building."

"I wasn't fast enough," Junket wailed.

Of course that made his new Super-Speed
hiccup again, a bone-rattling buzz that
made his hands shake so much
his root beer foamed over.

Swearing, Junket blotted up
the mess with napkins.

"It was not your fault,"
Eugene said firmly. "You did
the best you could in a situation
that you weren't trained to handle.
You did the job that Helen gave you,
and you did it well. Hold onto that."

"But we lost the last two," Junket said.
"They weren't even seriously injured,
just trapped. Some of the interior walls
gave way, there was a lot of rubble."

"There's no getting through a disaster
that big without some casualties,"
Eugene said. "It always hurts.
If you survive, though, you learn
how to live around the pain. You
got someone to talk with about that?"

"Yes," Junket said. "But none of them
have said the kind of things you have."

"Well, some things we try to keep from
spilling over into civilian life," Eugene said.
"I am sorry that you got caught up in
Helen's grand exit. She never meant
to hurt anyone with it, but there's
always a chance it can happen."

"I was looking right at her when
the building collapsed," Junket said,
his voice hoarse. "I could have --"

"Jumped her out before then?"
Eugene said. "Sure you could, but
it would've been the wrong thing to do.
If you had pulled her away from the door,
the building would have followed, and
you'd be blaming yourself for killing
everyone left inside it at the time."

"Oh," Junket said faintly. "I didn't
even think about it that way."

"Well, now you know," Eugene said.
"There wasn't any way you could have
saved everyone, it was just a choice
between different losses. You did
the best thing you could by listening
to the experienced strategist at hand."

Junket prodded his bruised emotions.
"It was really what she wanted?" he said.

"It really was," Eugene said. "Helen and I
talked about this quite a bit, before she started
going back on field missions. She wanted
to make sure it wasn't a head problem."

"You told her it wasn't," Junket guessed.

"I told her we should figure out the differences
between sacrifice and suicide," Eugene said.
"So one of the rules was that she had to bug out
as soon as everyone else made it to safety.
Another was having other folks prepared
to clean up the mess if someone got
sideswiped like you did, which is
why I came to visit with you today."

"I guess ... it's better to have a plan
than nothing at all," Junket said.

He worked for rich people.
He'd seen what could happen
when someone didn't have
an end-of-life plan. It sucked.

"Also, Helen wanted you to have this,"
Eugene said, pulling something from
his pocket. "It was meant to go
to anyone in your situation."

The case was small and flat.
Junket flicked it open to reveal
gleaming enamel and bright ribbon.

"A Purple Heart?" he whispered.
"But why give this to me?"

"Because she knew that
someone might get hurt by
helping her save the day,"
Eugene said. "She wanted
you to know that it is an injury,
and should be honored as such."

Tears spilled down Junket's cheeks,
making him click the case closed
and reach for the tissues again.

At least this was a sign that
someone acknowledged what
happened to him, how much it hurt.

"Thanks," Junket said. "It helps
to know that this wasn't all my fault,
that was it was part of an actual plan.
I still hate it, and I feel awful, but ...
maybe a little less awful now."

"That's as much as we can
hope for," Eugene said, patting
him on the shoulder again. "I'll
hold up my promises to Helen,
and you'll learn to live with putting
someone else's choices ahead
of your own. That's life."

That's what Granny Whammy
had left them, Junket realized
as he leaned into the touch,
life in all its mess and glory.

It would have to be enough.

* * *

Notes:

Eugene Jacoby -- He has fair skin, brown eyes, and short curly black hair. He is slim and wiry. Both legs are missing below the knees due to shrapnel wounds sustained during World War II, on the beach at Normandy. His military service left him prone to depression, and he struggles with that from time to time. He has five children (the oldest Linda born in 1947), eleven grandchildren (the oldest born in 1968), seventeen great-grandchildren (the oldest born in 1993), and his first great-great-grandchild arrived in 2014.
After the war, Eugene felt despondent about his injuries. In particular he hated being on disability instead of employed, although his wife Camille had an excellent job as head nurse at a hospital and could comfortably support both of them. Whammy Lass convinced Eugene to revisit art, since he had abandoned his college studies to enlist. He took to carrying a leather-bound sketchbook and pencil case everywhere so he could document fellow veterans.
Together, Eugene and Whammy Lass created the famous "Casualties" line of toy soldiers. Most of the figures were either portraits of veterans, or composites of several. The "Corpsmen set" featured a variety of medics along with wounded soldiers sitting on stretchers, walking on crutches, and so forth. The "Cripples" line (later renamed "Handicapped Veterans," then "Veterans with Disabilities") featured casualties missing limbs, crawling casualties, soldiers carrying each other, one in a wheelchair modeled after the sculptor himself, and a homeless beggar. The "Haunts" line (later renamed "The Horrors of War") included an American soldier stabbing a German one, a casualty screaming over his amputated limbs, a soldier with his gun to his chin, one with fist raised over a weeping child, one with hands outstretched toward a kneeling woman, a soldier cowering under a table, one sobbing over a tombstone, and assorted corpses. Each set included a guide to the poses, with a little information about their purpose. These figures, mass-produced with the aid of toy companies, became enormously popular and a percentage of their sale price went to support veterans.
Later on, Eugene made many other figures and became a famous sculptor of toys and memorials. Subsequent lines of military figures included calisthenics and eventually yoga, with instructions on the various moves. He introduced additional categories such as police, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders. These added even more information about the activities and professions represented. Eventually he put out lines of citizen responders and civilians. These led to sets featuring different careers, sports, hobbies, and more. Again some of these included instructions about the moves as well as a guide to poses. Eugene's contributions shaped public opinions about toys, the military, civic duties, and many other aspects of life.
Qualities: Master (+6) Artist, Master (+6) Veteran Connections, Expert (+4) Army Veteran, Expert (+4) Citizen, Expert (+4) Dexterity, Good (+2) Art History, Good (+2) Being Prepared, Good (+2) Charity, Good (+2) Imaginative Play, Good (+2) Spatial Intelligence
Poor (-2) Depressive Episodes

Eleanor Robinson -- She has fair skin, brown eyes, and curly brown hair to her shoulders. She has a gentle, homely face, and he looks like someone's favorite aunt. She and her husband Walter have four sons: Fraser, Ruprecht, and the twins Ash and Alder. She has two brothers and one sister, with a total of two nieces and two nephews from them so far, plus another three from Walter's brother and sisters. Eleanor is an interior designer in Tulsa, Oklahoma whose interest in gardening gives her a knack for harmonizing indoor and outdoor living areas. She loves classic movies and has decorated her home with her collection of cinematic memorabilia. She has a craft room for her more artistic hobbies. Although Eleanor has limited mobility and walks with a cane, she is tougher than she looks.
Qualities: Master (+6) Pillar of the Local Community, Expert (+4) Family Ties, Expert (+4) Interior Designer, Expert (+4) Kind, Good (+2) Classic Movie Fan, Good (+2) Crafty, Good (+2) Gardener, Good (+2) Tough as Nails, Good (+2) Wealth
Poor (-2) Mobility Issues

* * *

"Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die."
-- G. K. Chesterton

CarGo is a weirdly compelling 3D video game in T-America about packing groceries into various handbaskets, carts, vehicles, and kitchen storage. The more of the groceries you can cram into the space -- without damaging fragile ones like eggs -- the more points you get.

Eugene Jacoby was introduced in "The (Un)Whole Truth," which tells about how he and Whammy Lass came up with the 'Casualties' line of toy soldiers.

Stewart's Root Beer is among the best of the old-fashioned sodas.

(These links are sad.)
Death in the line of duty means someone getting killed while doing their job. It mainly applies to first responders and soldiers, but can apply to any dangerous career such as electrical lineworkers. In Terramagne, it also applies to superheroes and supervillains. This can cause traumatic bereavement in those left behind, because line-of-duty deaths have many layers of grief. Regrettably all the support materials I could find on this topic were about how to do the paperwork, rather than how to treat the emotional injuries.

(So are these.)
However, line-of-duty deaths can have very similar impact as suicide loss. They often feel the same to survivors due to the element of choice that is, or seems to be, present in these cases unlike in most deaths. Survivors of suicide loss need extra care and sympathy due to the heightened risk of complicated grief. The self-care tips for survivors of suicide loss generalize well to line-of-duty survivors. So do the practical tips for helping suicide loss survivors. Notice that Granny Whammy realized this could cause a problem and took steps to ensure that any collateral victims were taken care of.

(These links are harsh.)
Moral injury occurs when someone transgresses their own and/or society's expectations of decent behavior. Although often mentioned in regard to military service, it can happen in a wide range of areas. Sometimes spiritual communities can help with moral repair. Read about the clinical indications and mental treatment. There are actually two paths for recovery from moral injury: adjust your moral framework (if you have gained greater understanding that enlightens useful changes) or adjust your behavior (if you fell short of parameters you wish to keep). Junket faces a serious challenge to his moral and ethical standards. He has to decide whether he did the right thing, and should incorporate Granny Whammy's perspective as part of his own framework; or he did the wrong thing, and he prefers to keep his framework as it stands. This will help him answer the question of what he should do in future emergencies: act as a temporary hero to take orders from more experienced ones, act as a citizen responder to leave the hot zone and provide assistance in a warm or cold zone, or act as a civilian and leave altogether to keep himself safe. I could not find instructions on self-care for healing moral injuries. However, the basics overlap strongly with advice for becoming a moral, ethical, or generally good person. It may help to develop a personal code of ethics, or if you already have one, revisit it and update if necessary.

(These too.)
Personal identity frames the sense of self. Identity injuries can happen in various ways. Physical wounds, sexual assault, or gender issues can all cause identity disruption. That dissonance creates a lot of social stress. Basically, Junket faces a major challenge to his identity, and he needs to resolve that before he can move on. Can he incorporate emergency heroism into his sense of self, or is he truly not a hero and needs to avoid such situations for his own safety? This article on sexual challenges presents a number of interventions for identity issues, some of which help with injuries from other sources. Getting to know yourself can support your sense of self. To heal a damaged identity, you need to build self-worth and practice self-compassion. Here are some exercises.

(These are controversial.)
Bridging the gap between civilian counselors and military clients is difficult for various reasons. Civilian counselors have a hard time understanding military culture, and veterans often worry that sharing horrid memories may traumatize civilians. These are credible threats, and they can impact not only veterans themselves but also friends and family. Not only is Junket struggling to understand Granny Whammy's behavior, his own interactions with her now put him a half-step off from the civilian norm, making standard care less effective for him in handling this issue. Some strategies help civilian counselors meet the needs of veterans more effectively.

(So is this.)
There's quite a debate over whether or not to say, "Thank you for your service." It's never going to be settled, because some veterans love it while others hate it. If you say it, you'll always upset some people who don't like it; if you don't say it, you'll always offend some who feel snubbed by its absence. This has to do with the function of the phrase: it is a citizen's acknowledgement of a soldier's gift of sacrifice, and an expression of appreciation for that. It closes the loop. So long as the soldier is morally centered, it feels great to most people. Missing it feels like missing a step on the stairs. But the moment someone is morally questioning, it becomes uncomfortable; and for anyone with a moral injury, it hurts like holy living hell. I was taught to say thank you when I was little, and I was taught to do that by veterans, so it's very natural to me. However, I've learned to watch someone's body language and listen to their voice in hopes of picking up cues. If they act proud, I'll thank them. If they look like walking wounded, I won't, and I'll drop a hairpin that I'm reasonably competent as a supporter.

(These links are awful.)
The Invasion of Normandy was a notable success for the Allies in World War II, but it was a complete and utter bloodbath. The German Army was a wreck by then, but it was a very well-entrenched wreck. By the end of the war, Germany was down to recruiting boys barely into adolescence. Killling kids, even enemies in combat, is not something most people handle well.

(These links are sad.)
Self-blame is a form of internalized emotional abuse, common among survivors of trauma. Junket blames himself for Granny Whammy's death because he obeyed her orders instead of following his own instincts. There are steps to let go of self-blame.

Forgiveness is a virtue that is distinct from other related concepts. It is impossible to avoid all mishaps, so what matters is how you handle it when things go wrong. Know how to forgive someone for hurting you and how to forgive yourself for making mistakes.
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