I will be going to the cenotaph in my town this morning to stand with hundreds of others for the silence at 11:00am. I try to go every year, but wherever I am I always observe the silence. And I always wear a poppy.
This year my four year old has been asking about why I have a paper poppy on my coat, and I have tried to explain it to him simply. We remember all of the soldiers who died or were hurt in a very big war a hundred years ago, and all the soldiers who have died or been hurt in wars ever since. We also try to remember to be kind to each other and not to let our disagreements end in fighting. We try to think about ways to solve our disagreements with discussion.
The word “courage” is used a lot at this time of the year. I have no doubt that enormous courage was displayed in the Great War and continues to be displayed by service men and women today. Yet I imagine that for many of the participants it was like any other time when you are thrust into a frightening experience – you get on with it as best you can, one foot in front of the other. You probably don’t acquit yourself admirably all of the time. You just keep going. And hope you come out into the light again.
We also talk about courage a lot in #MatExp. Midwife Jenny Clarke writes about “courage butter” and how it must be spread around the healthcare profession to ensure compassionate and safe care. And when we talk about professionals speaking out against unsafe practices, non-evidence based care and non-women centred approaches we call them “tall poppies”.
If you look it up on Wikipedia, the phrase “tall poppies” refers to “a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers”. Their courage is feared and resented. They are criticised for deviating from the norm, bucking the system, questioning the accepted wisdom and encouraging a new approach. They work in institutions that do not encourage original thinking.
In World War One pacifists who refused military service were imprisoned for their beliefs. Pacifists were reviled in society as cowards and deserters. They refused to follow without question. They stood up for their beliefs and spoke out against what they saw as wrong. They were different. And that is not something that society ever accepts with ease.
There are many different types of courage. There is being a tall poppy, standing up for what you believe in, being true to yourself despite near universal opposition and trying to be the change you want to see in the world.
There is following the crowd because you feel it is your duty to do so, despite your overwhelming fear. There is standing together with your team, your comrades, your tribe, holding the line and fighting on together, even when at times your cause seems impossible.
There is pushing yourself to simply keep going, every single day, even though you can taste the fear in your mouth and you feel as though you can no longer face what you are expected to face. There is putting one foot in front of the other. Every day.
And there is the courage that only others can see. When they tell you that you are courageous. And inspirational. But you don’t believe it because you know how scared you are, and how you don’t always do the right thing, and how you struggle every day to do the things that you do. You don’t feel courageous. You feel scared and alone.
Today I will be remembering the millions of men and women who stood together and died together in active service. I will be remembering those who refused to join that crowd. I will be remembering those who believed in the cause, those who reviled the cause and the many many who went along in ignorance, fought in desperation and died in fear.
And I will also be thinking about my own team, my own tribe, even though we are fortunate enough never to have to face the guns of war. I know many tall poppies who are speaking out for the good of families and for the good of their own colleagues, despite those in authority trying to silence them, or distort their intentions or push them out of their profession. I know many dedicated professionals who stand with their team every day, every shift, and work for progress even though it often only comes by inches. And I know many who simply turn up every day, embattled and exhausted, putting one foot in front of the other using all of their courage to keep on keeping on.
There are many kinds of courage. We all have it within us. And it should be celebrated when we see it. Because it is courage that holds the line, that keeps us together, that shows us the way to resolve conflict and to make progress, inch by inch. When I think of the men and women who died in World War One I don’t think of them as extraordinary. I think of them as ordinary, everyday people – you and me, our family and friends. Because that is what they were. They faced their times in their own way and so many of them were courageous. Even when they didn’t feel it. Even when society didn’t recognise it. Even when no one was left to remember it.
We will remember them. We will be them. We will honour them. And we will be courageous in their memory.