Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Morphine and Moral Courage

Our community theater will be putting on To Kill A Mockingbird in September, and as everyone has ambitions of trying out, we've been reading it aloud. I cringe a bit as I read it unexpurgated, but conviction is essential to acting, and my hope is that if the kids hear the casually contemptuous way the genteel whites of depression-era Maycomb County address their black brethren, a disgust for such language will be seared into their brains.

We just finished the chapter where Jem must read to old ailing Mrs. Dubose in reparation for mutilating her camellias. This burst of temper on his part was the result of Mrs. Dubose's vicious racially-tinged insults of his father, Atticus, who is defending a black man against a charge of rape of a white woman. Mrs. Dubose's cruelty is nothing new -- she savages Jem and Scout every chance she gets, as personally as she can.
"She was vicious. Once she heard Jem refer to our father as 'Atticus', and her reaction was apoplectic. Besides being the sassiest, most disrespectful mutts who ever passed her way, we were told that it was quite a pity our father had not remarried after our mother's death. A lovelier lady than our mother had never lived, she said, and it was heartbreaking the way Atticus Finch let her children run wild. I did not remember our mother, but Jem did -- he would tell me about her sometimes -- and he went livid when Mrs. Dubose shot us this message."
Jem reads to Mrs. Dubose for a month, bearing with her erratic behavior. When she dies shortly after, Atticus tells him that Mrs. Dubose had been trying to wean herself off of a years-long addiction to morphine.
"You know, she was a great lady."  
"A lady?" Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. "After all those things she said about you, a lady?" 
"She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe... son, I told you hat if you hadn't lost your head I'd have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her -- I wanted you to see what true courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."
According to her views. 

Last week I tried to elucidate for my eighth-graders the difference between courage and moral fortitude, and I wish I'd had this example to hand. Courage is weaning yourself off of morphine and dying in agony just so you can say you did it (or others can say you did it), so that according to your views you are beholden to nothing and nobody. Moral fortitude is the strength to hold back from belittling children, even if it's to compensate for your pain, and maybe even to speak kindly to them even if they seem dirty and rude; to refrain from insulting members of another race, especially when one of them is your caretaker to whom you are certainly beholden; to repay kindness from people whose views you don't respect with kindness. It's attempting to love your neighbor. It's enduring suffering patiently, even if that endurance requires some morphine.

Atticus Finch is certainly one of the great characters of fiction, but he's not perfect. Jem feels the contradiction. Mrs. Dubose may have been one of the bravest people Atticus ever knew, and she may have exhibited great courage, but she was no lady. Better to love on morphine than to hate sober.

4 comments:

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Better to love on morphine than to hate sober.

That's worth chewing on.

I've got a friend who is very stubborn about not taking drugs. She gritted through post surgery pain on over the counter painkillers. She doesn't want to medicate her kids for what seem to me rather serious mental health issues. I love her very much, but have a hard time biting my tongue when I think she's dead wrong about not getting help for her kid.

Me, I take the oxycodone and I'm still an unpleasant person, but who knows I might be even worse without it.

Me, I take prednisone and I still haven't figured out how to take it and not let the steroid rage unleash the sharp side of my tongue.

I like the way you frame it a a question of moral fortitude.

mrsdarwin said...

Or as someone more eloquent put it: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?"

Erica said...

Drugs and addiction are a very complicated topic. I recently got a picture of what opioid addiction looks like and the consequences for a family. There is a lot of compassion needed for both people who are in constant pain and become addicted *and* those who are brave enough to recognize their problem and attempt to end the addiction. I don't think there is a simple answer for ever case.

AHS said...

I, too, am going to be chewing on this for a while. Of course you aren't endorsing addiction! But I think it does fit in well with the current theme that keeps popping up in blog posts this Lent, about acknowledging our weakness (and sometimes for the good of those around us.)