May 11 • 11M



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(written in 2011)

I was very grateful and glad when hardcore activists began to Occupy Wall Street, but not optimistic about their success.  I attended the demonstration at Times’ Square and was thrilled by the number and diversity of people who turned out – still, I wasn’t convinced that even such an impressive demonstration would lead to real change. The only war there has ever been has always been the war of the rich against the underclass they wish to continue to control and exploit. Divisive social engineering mechanisms have always obstructed non-super-wealthy people from realizing any lasting solidarity with each other.

On November 17, 2011 I was taking a car service into lower Manhattan on the way to a posh fashion event I needed to write about for an independent magazine. 

There was an interminable crawl of traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Just before the exit near City Hall, I heard a woman shouting energetically through a bullhorn, and a call-and-response from a crowd of such magnitude and volume that all the hair stood up on my neck. I realized that what was stopping traffic was a tidal surge of humanity. I had never before seen so many people mobilized toward a single goal.  OWS wasn’t just stopping traffic: the feeling in the air shared by that exquisite mob of protestors was so exhilarating, I felt that all of lower Manhattan was throbbing with a transcendental sense of togetherness, of community, of real strength in numbers, and the incredible collective excitement of OH MY GOD THIS IS HISTORY, WE ARE CREATING HISTORY, WE ARE WITNESSING HISTORY, WE ARE BEING HISTORY. 

And I felt something I have never really felt before, as a disaffected and alienated person: actual, real, genuine hope for the future. I began sobbing uncontrollably, because it was the greatest moment I have ever experienced in my country, and the first time I have ever felt truly at home in the world. 

I had only one previous incident in my life to equal the emotion I felt during the demonstration on November 17. 

Several years ago, I was dating a senior Pentagon official who had been a career Special Forces supersoldier – a Green Beret, a ranger, a decorated veteran. 

We always had interesting conversations – he once taught me how to kill an assailant with a sharpened Ticonderoga pencil – but the most riveting exchange happened late one night in a DC hotel.  

While telling me about being a ranger in the mountains, and needing to deputize someone to keep watch for him while he slept in case wolves raided the camp, he asked me if I had ever "seen” courage. "You know courage when you see it," he said, "because it is the most beautiful thing there is."

He then did something like a metaphysical demonstration: he suddenly filled himself with courage; he inhabited this state of being. I experienced this as a moment of temporary synesthesia: he opened himself and sunned me with a valor so radiant that I actually saw this energy as a ball of stars swirling out from his stomach. 

And then he transferred this feeling over to me, in an overwhelming, somewhat hallucinogenic way, as if he suddenly erased all known human boundaries and wired a billion dollars into my psychic bank account. 

 By projecting his own valor onto me – by throwing it into me like a ventriloquist, he activated a previously unknown bravery in my primal being that was suddenly entirely intent on rising to the honor of fighting for him.  I had a sudden, utterly weird understanding of true leadership as the power to empower. I became wholly absorbed in the absolute devotion such leadership inspires: there is nothing you would not do for someone who ennobles you by trusting you in this profound way. I empathized absolutely with how people can and do give their lives to realize such faith invested in them. To "see" the beauty of courage touched off a latent bonfire in a part of me I’d never known was there – it was a feeling so breathtaking, so connective and contagious, so profoundly transformative, so magnificent as to leave no room for personal isolation or cowardice.  It is a fearlessness that obliterates any notion of self -- you’d dive into fire singing just to add yourself to such divinity. 

This is, of course, what a great leader of people is capable of doing - deputizing courage into you. Passing it to you.  Igniting it in you.  It is the rare stuff of battlefields. 

I lay awake for hours, reeling, riveted by the strange realization that on a physical/emotional/metaphysical level, I was suddenly and perfectly dedicated to the idea of killing a wolf with the only improvisable weapon I had in the room. It even seemed logical, in that heightened state: If wolves got into the hotel, I knew I would be possessed by the ageless, immortal, gargantuan spirit of valor, and I would embody the glorious catastrophe necessary to attack and kill a wolf with a pencil.  Even if I should fail, the idea of being devoured by wolves to protect this leader of men was literally ecstatic. 

My Pentagon friend liked the C.S. Lewis quote: “Courage is the form of every virtue at the testing point.”  He made me viscerally understand that courage isn't just love:  it is love demonstrated by an inspired act of bravery – and also glory, nobility, honor, sacrifice. It is a kinetic truth and beauty pervasive and indestructible enough to transcend the limits of life and overwhelm the fear of death -- a will to superhuman action which is and must fulfill itself, and exists infinitely beyond any one person’s ability to possess it.

After driving through the OCCUPY demonstration, I continued to the fashion party. This was a seriously elite party, honoring the FIT Museum and Dr. Valerie Steele, who I greatly like and admire, for the show she had recently curated, out of Daphne Guinness’s personal closet/collection.  I have never seen so many wealthy women in incredibly constructed fur coats -- they all seemed to be wearing them.  Staggeringly intricate ankle-length fur wrought into herringbone and checker-patterns.  

And while I would ordinarily enjoy this setting, on this night, I felt like I’d come down with a case of the bends.  It was a swanky party full of engaging, privileged people -- and I  felt miserably ridiculous and depraved being there, instead of with the real event happening downtown.

Greed is devoid of grace. It operates in the dark; it feeds on isolation, distraction, insecurity, shame, hostility, weakness, deceit, despair. It is the opposite of generosity; without generosity there is no oxygen for courage. There is no nobility, no virtue, no honor, no glory…. Nothing worth having, and no world worth fighting for.   

Since November 17, I have been convinced that it is possible to reverse the tide of criminality that has seized all the levers of this country.   

No matter how brainwashed America is – no matter how bullied we are into the false hopelessness of consumer isolation, I believe there is no person capable of resisting the call to embody all virtues. Anyone is capable of true heroism, even unto giving their life. 

I was moved by the courage of the activists peacefully demonstrating at U.C. Davis, sitting with their arms linked in silence, waiting to be casually pepper-sprayed by a cop unemotionally doing his horrible job -- the ultimate banality of evil.  When I saw the overwhelming revulsion in reaction to that video, I knew that not only had Americans found their connection to virtue again, but that we’d never lost it after all. 

There is no greater responsibility, privilege, or joy than the conviction that protecting any life is the greatest possible honor, and indivisible from protecting your own.  There is no spirit more powerfully contagious, more heartening, more emboldening.  We embody this power; we deputize one another with it.

We must know, when the wolves are at the door, that we all have the power to kill them with pencils.  We all have the power to ennoble and protect each other, because each of us contains multitudes.  We are each others’ multitudes. We all possess the ability to reflect and amplify courage, infinitely.  

Artwork: “Leontyne Price as Maria in West Side Story,” oil on linen by Cintra Wilson, 2021.