Profile in Courage: Winston Churchill

Anyone who knows me knows I have a deep admiration of Winston Churchill.

Not for the obvious reason that he led Britain against Germany in the darkest times of World War II (though that is definitely admirable).

Rather, it’s because I feel a lot of affinity for the man. He battled moods that would cripple lesser people (he referred to it as his “black dog”). Indeed, prior to returning to lead Britain in World War II, he’d spent a decade in what he would call “the wilderness”: rejected and on outs because no one wanted to hear the unpleasant, inconvenient truths he was speaking. This was a time of great depression and difficulty for him.

He also was a gifted writer and speaker. Indeed, he won the Nobel Prize for literature for his history of World War II, which he wrote after once again being unceremoniously dumped out of office by the very people whom he saved.

Churchill understood the need to struggle and fight and never give up. As a master of the turn of phrase, he described the sort of daily struggle I sometimes feel very eloquently. “When you’re in Hell,” he said, “you might as well keep moving”. He also would describe the importance of forward motion in hard times with the phrase “KBO” for “Keep Buggering On”. Again, meaning that you keep moving forward.

When I was in graduate school, I had a classmate who was older than me and British. He talked about a conversation he has with his mother who had been in Britain during the war. He asked her about the speeches from Churchill on the radio, asking if they were as inspiring then as they are now. No, she said, they weren’t inspiring: they scared the hell out of her. Because they didn’t know how it was going to end, unlike us.

That is a telling thing: it underscores the strength and courage he had: to look into the abyss where there is rightly no hope and to continue onward. I myself believe that ultimately that strength was honed first and foremost in the crucible of himself and his struggles with mood.

My wife got me a bust of Churchill many years ago. Actually had it shipped from Britain. It sits on my desk. It’s the only statue I have. And it’s a reminder to me that strength and courage come from not giving up, from geting up every day and battling onward. And it reminds me that writers can be warriors too. Indeed, some of the best writers are warriors of a kind.

In writing this, I happend on a lovely homage to Churchill as a role model for leadership and life courage. It’s a nice article but most of all, it’s about the importance of having the courage to look square on at the scary things and not flinch, but instead to move forward. Much like I wrote before, the importance of moving towards your fears.

In closing, it seems most appropriate to let the man speak for himself. This is the famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.

But before you listen, try to put yourself in the place of my classmate’s mother. Pretend that you hear this not knowing how this will all end. Understand that this speech was to tell the people of Britain of the disaster of Dunkirk and the ejection of all British forces from the European continent. Realize that the next step everyone thought was coming was the German invasion of Britain. And so, when he says”we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills” you hear the real possibility that within six months time, you and your loved ones will be seeing German soldiers marching through London, York, Manchester. And there will be fighting and blood and death in those streets. And all you know and hold dear may be at risk of loss and death.

Paint that picture and then listen. And see if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you. And see too if you can better appreciate what what strength it took to look at that, speak truth to it, and yet end on a note of hope and defiance by saying “we shall never surrender”.