ourage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. • English author and thinker G.K. Chesterton, 1874-1936
It occurred to me when I was very young that growing up must be a hard thing indeed. If only, I thought, there were some way around it. Of course the only real way around it is to die young, and that I did not want to do — I needed to live to a ripe old age, for otherwise I was in great danger of dying just as I was, not yet formed. And what would be the point of it? What would be the point of having been brought out of that great nothing if all you were going to do with your life was nothing, and in the end have nothing to show for these days after days of living? Worse than that, all this time might turn you into a worm. What then? If ever there was to be the slightest chance of creeping out of this hole, life would need to be long. I’d put my head upon the pillow and wish that tomorrow I would wake into a new world, one in which I was grown up and it was all over, the interminable middle having already been lived.
Being very young I imagined that once you’d reached a suitably grown up age, maybe seventeen or so, or maybe twenty, all the strife of becoming would be at an end — you would have become, settled like an old rock into its proper shape, and after that you might spend the days however you wanted, content till you died.
If somehow that child could be brought forward to meet me, she would consider me very old, thoroughly grown up. Never may I meet her! Older, stupider, and nothing done yet, here I am, no more ready to die. Stuck in the middle of a novel I cannot — oh, mercy — flip the pages of.
This long middle, often dull and prosaic, but holding in its pages the threat of everything, might, in an ancient map, be marked with dragons. That great territory we must traverse if ever we’ve hankered after the land of heart’s desire, and even if we haven’t. That is merely the inevitable direction in which every human life grows. But it seems that we all wish to avoid it.
Some days ago I took my rabbit Muchness out for the first time. It was a lovely day, the sky could not have been bluer, the clouds were wispy, and the redbud was in bloom. But would His Royal Highness, the great, pampered indoor bunny come out of his carrier? No. His poor captive’s heart was all aflutter and he trembled at the very touch of the air. It was perfect weather for a rabbit, not too hot, not too cold. Yes, there were hawks above, but I was watching all the time, and besides we were sitting in a dog pen. Finally, after many minutes, he stuck his head out, but that was all. I wasn’t going to interfere, he would come out in his own good time, but I didn’t keep that bargain. I picked him up and plopped him down on my lap. He stayed awhile, and then, seeing his open carrier, jumped straight into it.
Once back inside with him, I made the mistake of looking on a rabbit forum to check how other people’s rabbits react to being taken out. No, no, no, they all said, you must never take your rabbit out. Why, it’s inhumane, don’t you know it? There is a really gruesome ailment that rabbits, along with sheep and goats, and who knows what else besides, are privy to.
It’s called fly strike; the flies lay their eggs on the rabbits rear end, and the maggots eat their way out of the live rabbit. The rabbit dies. One person said that he’d taken his rabbit out, and the first thing that happened is that it got fly strike and died. He has never taken a rabbit out ever again. Inside is good enough for us, it’s good enough for rabbits, it’s good enough for all God’s creatures.
The thing about these stories is that they do scare you. You read them and think, goodness, I should never take my rabbit out again. You begin to question whether or not you are an appropriately humane person. Don’t you value life?
I do actually. I do value life. That’s why I’m of the opinion that my rabbit might actually enjoy the outdoors if he can bring himself to have a bite more courage. He could of course get fly strike and die, and that I don’t want and I do what I can to prevent it by making sure his living area is clean, but I’m not God and I’m not a fairy godmother. I cannot ensure happy endings, not for myself, not for my rabbit, not for my parents, not for anybody. But I do have it in my limited power to add a dash of zest to a few lives. Should I never dare?
We’re all going to die. Certainly if we step out the door, we might get hit by a car, we might get struck by lightning, we might get fly strike, but life requires us to open the door. If we choose not to, we are choosing only a different kind of danger — the middle, whether vivifying or stultifying, is still here. But whatever we choose to do, open the door or close it, there may be dragons.