Our theme this month of January is courage. Now we Unitarian Universalists live by a set of seven principles. And yet principles are not enough. One must have something inside them, perhaps courage, as the cowardly lion story demonstrated to us this morning, or a certain resolve, or a certain resiliency and ability to live by those principles, especially when life gets difficult.
Courage. This morning we are going to watch a clip from the movie Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo. In the late 1940s after World War II, things turned pretty vicious in this country. A group on Capitol Hill, the House Un-American Activities Committee, was constituted and they brought before them and in the years following a series of hearings in the Senate known as the McCarthy hearings. It was a very brutal time in which people were castigated, and not only castigated, they were often imprisoned for their beliefs, for their political stances. And in the late 1940s a group from Hollywood known as the Hollywood Ten were brought before Congress to “testify”. They were asked some questions about their political affiliations and their beliefs, and they were held in contempt of Congress for choosing to exercise their first amendment rights, the freedom of speech.
Most of the ten spent some time in jail or prison over time, from about six months to a year, and one of the primary spokespeople of that group was a screenwriter in Hollywood of the name Dalton Trumbo, probably better known to most people as the author of the novel Johnny Got His Gun. But Trumbo was actually one of the most successful and highly paid screenwriters in Hollywood in the 1940s, and actually later on in the 1950s and 60s. Trumbo was one of those people who had remarkable courage. He was not daunted by Congress nor anyone else. And in this scene from the movie, he and John Wayne, the famous Western actor, who was on a very different side of the political spectrum from Trumbo, have an interchange. So I invite you to watch:
[Dalton Trumbo and three friends join the audience in a large banquet room where John Wayne is speaking to the Motion Picture Alliance.]
“John Wayne: … talk about America. I’m talking about freedom, the kind of freedom we just fought a world war to save. You want to be a communist, go be a communist, but some friends of mine in Washington think you’ve got some questions to answer.
Friend of Trumbo: I never knew he was this good.
Eddie [Edward G. Robinson]: Because he’s not acting; that’s him.
John Wayne: … you still want to be a commie, go be one in Russia. But off you go, and enjoy the Bolshoi Ballet.
[laughter and applause from audience in room]
[Trumbo and friends are now passing out literature at the exit from the banquet room.]
Trumbo: Excuse me sir, would you like to read about the first amendment?
Friend of Trumbo: A little light reading?
[Man takes a pamphlet]
Trumbo: Well thank you, sir.
Man: [tears up the pamphlet and says] Do svidaniya!
Dalton: How would you like to learn about the first amendment?
Eddie: This is a nightmare.
Hedda Hopper: Dalton?
Dalton: Oh, Hedda! Good evening to you.
Hedda: Eddie, darling.
Eddie: Hedda. New hat?
Hedda: Ah, daily, darling, daily.
Hedda: Been to the movies lately, Dalton?
[John Wayne walks up.]
Hedda: Duke, now wasn’t he magnificent!
John Wayne: Just sayin’ what needs sayin’. Hi, Eddie.
John Wayne: I hear you and your pals got a pamphlet. Any takers?
Eddie: Not yet.
Friend of Trumbo: Would you like one, sir? We’re communists.
Eddie: He’s a writer.
John Wayne: You won’t get any takers, not here anyway.
Trumbo: Oh, why’s that? All it says is that Congress has no right to investigate how we vote or where we pray; what we think, say, or how we make movies. Hello, I’m Dalton Trumbo.
Wayne: [refusing Trumbo’s offer of a handshake] Congress has the right to go after anything they think is a threat.
Trumbo: Well that’s where we disagree, and that’s the point. We both have the right to be wrong.
Wayne: You want to talk about rights, first tell me whose side you’re on. Russia’s no friend, not any more. You better wake up, because it’s a new day. A new day.
Wayne: And maybe it’s not for your kind.
Trumbo: My kind? What kind is that?
Wayne: The kind that has no idea why we just won a war.
Trumbo: That’s curious; that’s the second time you’ve mentioned that. See I was a war correspondent in Okinawa. Hedda’s son was stationed in the Philippines. Eddie was in Europe with the Office of War Information. Where did you serve again?
Wayne: You trying to say something?
Eddie: No, Duke, he wasn’t.
Hedda: Stay out of it, Eddie.
Trumbo: If you’re going to talk about World War II as if you personally won it, let’s be clear where you were stationed. On a film set, shooting blanks, wearing makeup. And if you are going to hit me I would like to take off my glasses.
[flashes from reporters taking photos]
Another man: Duke, come on, let’s get out of here.”1
I live just a few blocks from the Neon Theater downtown and it is one of the joys of living in Dayton, Ohio. I have to tell you, if you have never been to the Neon you should frequent it. I try to as often as I can. They feature some of the most inspiring independent films being produced today. And certainly Trumbo last year was one of them.
Are you now or have you ever been a person of great courage? Dalton Trumbo certainly was. Trumbo not only took on Washington D.C. and Hollywood; he was actually blacklisted for 13 years of his life for doing that. He was a father of three children, a husband, a provider for his family. He was also someone of great integrity; and for thirteen years of his life he struggled along with other screenwriters also blacklisted during those years to scrape together a living. Actually he managed to scrape together a pretty good living himself, but many did not. Many lost their careers. Many even lost their lives, lost families, lost a great deal.
But for Trumbo in those years, he was committed not only to providing for his family, he was committed to being a person who stuck with all of those who were experiencing hardships in their lives. And he was unflinching. That scene that you just watched from the movie, I don’t know if that encounter actually ever happened in real life. Perhaps it’s more illustrative of the fact that these were two different ways of approaching things in those days, but certainly it captured very clearly Dalton Trumbo’s personality, his tenacity, his integrity, to speak toward the truth of how he saw life. And certainly the first amendment–believing in the freedom of speech and religion and the living of one’s life–was at the core, at the heart of who he was as a person. He was one who during those years of the blacklist when Hollywood banded together–the producers, the directors, the motion picture industry itself–was party to not allowing any blacklisted writer to work in Hollywood, well, at least in public. They forbid movies from even publishing the name of a writer, even if they had written the script, and so Trumbo and many others had to use fictitious names often, often using other people to stand in for them when it came time to sign contracts or to meet with studio executives and producers. They found their ways around it in numerous ways and yet they were constantly beleaguered along the way.
Trumbo though was certainly one of the most vocal and ardent and unyielding of the Hollywood Ten and the others affected by the blacklist. He was definitely a person of courage. And so this morning, thinking about his life and others whom I’ve known over time who have exhibited courage in their lives, I want us to think and focus for a few minutes on what it means to be a person of courage. As I said in preface to the clip that we watched, we Unitarian Universalists live by a set of principles that we hold dearly; and yet our lives are only really as good as we actually live those principles out, as we are willing to stand for them and to stand with others for them.
One of the things I’ve learned about people who are often seen and viewed as courageous is this. They usually don’t see themselves as courageous. As I think about my own life there have been times when people have said to me, “Wow, that took a lot of courage!”, and all I can think of is, courage, this had nothing to do with courage. I had to speak, I had to act, because my very life was at stake, oh perhaps not physically. But in a real sense oftentimes people who act with courage are simply acting because they can do nothing else. Because in order for them to assert who they are in Hillel’s question, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Oftentimes it is the people seen with courage who are simply trying to assert a place for themselves in this world and claim it. And Dalton Trumbo, believing as a person of integrity so strongly in his need to exercise his rights, that no government, nobody, no church, no institution anywhere could ever impinge upon his rights to believe and to say and to do what he needed to do, was simply acting to say, “I matter.” Courage? He probably would have looked at you and laughed in your face, and yet his actions, his words were courageous.
A friend of mine who lives in Kalamazoo … I remember talking with him a few years ago when he was telling me his story of transitioning. He’s transgender. And at the end of the story I said, “Wow! You have so much courage!” And again he kind of looked at me, and he almost laughed and he said, “Courage? I did this to save my life. I couldn’t do anything else, and if I hadn’t I would not be here today.” I do call that courage, but I get it.
Courage, you see, is that willingness to risk vulnerability to be ourselves, to be what matters; and that makes all the difference in life. As the cowardly lion learned, it is something within us. Oh it would be nice, I suppose, if you could drink a nice little green potion to make it happen. But it is there within us, of course, as the story suggests all along. It’s not something we have to drink or manufacture. It’s not something we have to go looking for, to import into ourselves. It is there in our deepest core if we would but risk letting it out. And yet it is so difficult sometimes for us to do that, is it not?
And one of the reasons why it is so difficult I think is because we live oftentimes in our lives by a myth of scarcity. Our whole world suggests to us oftentimes that there is not enough, and indeed when our lives are pressed like Dalton Trumbo’s and the other ten and many others were in those years, one automatically goes to that default mode that says life is full of scarcity, which means something like this, when you’re a father of three children that you’re trying to raise and feed and clothe and shelter. Trumbo later in life talked about those who had been informers on Capitol Hill, who had yielded to the pressure, unlike him and a few others. He said of course they were doing what they felt they needed to do. They were often doing things to protect the loved ones in their lives. They thought perhaps if they yielded and informed that somehow their loved ones would be spared, that perhaps their careers indeed would be able to be carried out without too much interruption and trouble so that they could provide for their families, and Dalton Trumbo knew that. But he also knew that by giving in and informing, by not honoring his priorities and his principles and his values he would also dishonor his loved ones. So he found ways, hard ways, of putting together a living. But you see we listen to those messages oftentimes in those moments and instances when courage is called for from us, do we not? Oh, I would like to speak up, I would like to take this action but I am afraid for my livelihood or I am afraid for the well-being and safety of my children or grandchildren, or any other number of other things. Those are real fears in our lives, and we oftentimes as Trumbo himself said from time to time, we’re not all consistent all of the time. But we too often yield to those pressures because we believe in that myth of scarcity. That if we make certain decisions we and those we love will suffer.
And one of the things I think that the story of Dalton Trumbo and the others especially speaks to is the fact that they really did band together. They became closer; they found ways of supporting and encouraging each other. When Trumbo was getting all kinds of offers for more work than he could handle at various times in his life in the 1950s, he would pass that work onto other colleagues who needed it. They would share homes; they would share responsibilities, sometimes for children and all kinds of things. They really lived out the fact that this world has enough in it if we would but trust that and trust in each other. It is not the place of scarcity that we often imagine in our worst fantasies. And they learned the truth of that. It is what sustained them in those very hard and difficult years. So to be people of courage it means being ourselves. It means being able to stand up for others when our voice or our action needs, when it counts most, to be able to set aside the fears of scarcity and trust that there is enough.
And finally, I think courage is about one more thing. Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly 2 tells a story about her family, especially about her daughter Ellen. Ellen was on the swim team, and one night when Brené came to pick her up after swim practice there was of course a line of cars there in the parking lot by the drive by the school, waiting to pick up all of the swimmers. She says, it was getting dark. I could only make out her silhouette, but that was enough. I could tell that something was very wrong by the way she was standing. She flung herself into the front seat, and before I could ask her about practice she was in tears. “What happened — what’s wrong? Are you ok?” She stared out the window, drew a deep breath, wiping the tears on the sleeve of her hoody, and said, “I have to swim the 100 meter breaststroke at the meet on Saturday.” I knew that this was a really bad thing in her world, so I tried not to seem too relieved, which I was, because in a crazy but normal-for-me fashion I was already thinking something really horrible had happened. “You don’t understand. I can’t swim breaststroke. I’m terrible! You don’t get it. I begged my coach not to put me in that event!” I was getting ready to respond with something empathetic, you know like a good parent, and encouraging, as I pulled into the driveway, but just then she looked me right in the eyes, put her hand on top of my hand and said, “Please, Mom. Please, help me! I’m still going to be swimming when the other girls are getting out of the pool. And the next heat is … They are going to be on the blocks while I’m still swimming. I’m really that slow.”
Brené says, I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t think clearly. All of the sudden I was transported back to being ten years old and I’m on the blocks getting ready to swim for the Memorial Northwest Marlins. My dad is the starter and he is giving me the win or die look. I’m in the lane closest to the wall, the slow lane. It’s going to be a disaster. Moments earlier as I was sitting on the ready bench contemplating making a run for my banana-seat bike leaning against the fence by the diving boards, I overheard the coach say, “Let’s just swim her up an age group. I’m not sure she can finish the race, but it will be interesting.”
“Mom! Mom! Mom, are you listening to me? Will you help me? Will you talk to the coach and see if he’ll put me in another race?” It felt unbearable, I wanted to scream, “Yes, you don’t ever have to swim an event you don’t want to swim, ever!” But I didn’t. Calm was my new whole-hearted practice, so I took a deep breath, counted to five and said, “Let me talk to your Dad.”
So after the kids went to bed they talked for an hour, debating. Finally they agreed that Ellen would have to take it up with her coach. If he wanted her to swim that race she needed to swim it. As right as the decision felt I hated every minute of it, Brené says. I tried everything from picking a fight with Steve to blaming the coach to venting my fear and discharging the vulnerability. And indeed the next morning Ellen was upset when we told her this. And even more upset when she came home from practice and told us that her coach thought it was important for her to get an official time for the event. She folded her arms at the table, put her head down, and cried. At one point she lifted up her head and said, “I could just scratch the event. A lot of people miss their heats.” And a part of me thought “perfect!” And then she said, “I won’t win. I’m not even good enough to get second or third place. Everyone is going to be watching.”
And then I knew that this was the opportunity to move the levers, to redefine what’s important. To make our family culture more influential than the swim meet, her friends, the ultra-competitive sports culture that is rampant in our community. I looked at her and I said, “You can scratch that event. I’d probably consider that option too. But what if your goal for that race isn’t to win or even to get out of the water at the same time as the other girls. What if your goal is simply to show up and get wet?” She looked at me as if I was crazy. “Just show up and get in the water?” I explained that I had spent many years never trying anything that I wasn’t already good at doing, and how those choices almost made me forget what it feels like to be brave. I said, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”
And so the day of the meet came. We stood at the end of the pool, held our breath, and she stepped up onto the blocks. She looked right at us, nodded her head, and snapped her goggles into place. And she was the last one out of the pool. The other swimmers had already left the deck, and there were girls standing on the blocks already ready for the next heat. Steve and I screamed and cheered the entire time. When she got out of the pool she walked over to the coach, who gave her a hug, then showed her something about her kick. When she finally made her way to us she was smiling and a little tearful. She looked at her dad and me and she said, “I was pretty bad, but I did it. I showed up, and I got wet. I was brave.”
And indeed courage is simply about showing up and being willing to get wet when it comes down to it. Today and every day of our lives we usually have an opportunity to exercise courage. I am glad to be a part of a community that knows how to show up and get wet, even if we are the last ones out of the pool. Let us be people of courage so that our principles may ring true in our lives and in the world.
1 You can find a similar film clip to view by searching YouTube on the Internet with the terms “Trumbo” and “Clashing with John Wayne”.
2 Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. (Available in multiple formats. For more information about her work, see her website at http://brenebrown.com/.)