How to Be a Happy Warrior

Several of my friends have remarked over the past few days how impressed they were that I was able to stay so calm during the engagement on the Facebook thread. Well, let me tell you, it wasn't easy! I was supposed to be at a fencing tournament today [now, yesterday--FB] at our club, but instead I have spent the day on the couch with Roger Scruton and a cold, my sinuses throbbing and my head in a whirl. Which is only to say, being a Happy Warrior takes it out of you.

So how did I do it, stay so calm in the midst of the storm? A few training tips for those brave enough to step with me onto the strip....

1. Arm yourself. If you are going to be a Happy Warrior, you need to know everything. I'm not kidding about this. There is a reason that after the Apostle Paul saw the Lord on the road to Damascus he went off to Arabia and did not return to Jerusalem for three years (Galatians 1:17-18). He was studying! (Okay, I'm getting this interpretation of what he says from Margaret Barker, but work with me here.) Back in the summer of 2012 when I announced myself a conservative here on the blog, I almost immediately got readers asking my opinions on everything. I was flummoxed. I had vague intimations about what I thought about guns (good in the right hands) and fossil fuels (infinitely more good than bad) and abortion (bad by definition, both for mother and child) and all of the other issues that are so dividing our country, but I didn't know anything about anything, except the history of Christianity. So I started reading...and reading...and reading...and reading...and reading.

I read National Review Online for a half hour or so every morning, and I read the books that they review and the books that the books that I read mention. I have been keeping a list (recommended highlights here), but even that doesn't give a true sense of how much I have been reading these past three or so years. I have never read for anything so compulsively ever in my life, not even when I was reading for orals--because now I am reading for my life. One of the first books that I read was Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which totally opened my eyes to why the modern history I had learned teaching History of European Civ never made any sense. I met Jonah and a number of the other National Review writers on the cruise to Alaska last summer, and I learned almost as much talking with them that week as I had in years of reading. In any case, Jonah also does a weekly newsletter, and a week or so ago he was talking about how necessary it is for conservatives to know their stuff, particularly those of us in academia. He was talking about growing up in New York City, but the argument applies generally to those who find themselves alone among friends who disagree with them:
I would argue that there's a certain advantage (and many disadvantages) to growing up--or living as--a conservative in a liberal place. It forces you to know yourself and your beliefs in a way you might not if conservatism is just in the air you breathe. It's analogous to my longstanding argument about being a conservative (or libertarian) on a liberal college campus. You develop muscles when you swim against the tide. The best learning is Socratic, and when you are constantly having your beliefs and assumptions questioned, you either cave in to the conventional wisdom or you force yourself to develop arguments for why the conventional wisdom is wrong. The smartest liberals at Harvard or Yale rarely meet a professor--or administrator--they actually disagree with on a fundamental philosophical level. Meanwhile, if you can make it out of those schools having been a politically engaged conservative, it means you've sharpened your thinking against a lot of whetting stones.
2. Practice with your friends. Although I have been pretty well silent on the blog for the last year or two, I have actually been posting and discussing a great deal with my friends on Facebook. This has not always been easy, as the majority of my friends (at least, those who are not fencers) is in academia and most of them are politically fairly liberal (I see lots of thumbs up for Bernie in my feed at the moment), so when last year or so, I started sharing articles from NRO on my wall, it was pretty nerve-wracking. Would they think less of me? Would they unFriend me? Would they be willing to talk about the things I was posting articles on? I tried to choose things that were more moderate in tone, less preaching to the choir and more trying to make the argument for a neutral audience. I would also include in my post a few comments about why I thought the article was worth reading and to paste in the most significant paragraphs for me so that those who did not follow the link would still get the general idea. As I said, it was pretty nerve-wracking at first, and I didn't handle every exchange as well as I wanted to, but the point was, I kept telling myself, I needed to practice. Better to practice with people who know me and whom I know, so that we don't end up shouting at each other right out of the gate. Most of my friends just scroll past my shares, a few "Like" them regularly, and a stalwart few weigh in and argue with me. It is these conversations that have done me the most good: taking the relatively blunt statements that Facebook comments encourage and working with them to stay calm.

3. Train yourself to deal with the emotion. This has arguably been the hardest part of the whole exercise. Reading is fun, you learn lots, it all makes so much sense, you suddenly feel like you are not the crazy one in the room because you have read the arguments that make sense of what you always actually believed but were not able to articulate. And then someone asks you--demands you--to justify yourself, and you immediately feel under attack. In truth, they may not in fact be attacking you, just asking for more clarification, but since your main weapon is knowledge, if they ask you something you don't know, you are going to feel anxious, defenseless, certain you are right but with no way to justify why. The first thing to do when you feel this is recognize that this is what happening: you feel anxious because you need an answer and don't have it. You will be tempted at this point to lash out, possibly even raise your voice. It will be hard, especially if it is someone you love asking you questions and all you know is that you know you are right, but you can't explain why. This is fine: it does NOT mean you are wrong, only that you need more information to be able to articulate why you know what you know to be true. Figure out what it is they are asking you, go back to #1, and read some more.

4. Work with a therapist or the equivalent so that you are able to recognize your triggers. So, the emotions are high, and you are feeling attacked. You need someone who can help you work through all of the things that this kind of exchange is likely to bring up. I have been talking with someone now for about four or five years, for the first couple of years every week, now every other week or once a month. Mainly, she just listens to me tell stories--about my family, about my writing, about the other people in my life, about my work--which is much, much more helpful than I had ever thought it would be. Simply to have someone listen, without judging, just reflecting back to me what I was saying so as to make it seem less terrifying. I have told her several times how what I think she does is possibly the most important job in the world: listening, allowing me to say all the most unsayable things. She showed me a kid's book once about a little girl (or maybe it was a boy, it doesn't matter) who had a monster, but the more she was able to talk about the monster, the smaller it got, until it wasn't even a monster anymore, but just a little mouse. I had a whole stable of monsters living in my head before I started talking with my therapist. I still have a few big ones, and little ones can always balloon again. But talking about the monsters, a.k.a. triggers, has made almost all of them much less scary, which means I don't have to have them in my head any more at all. They can be free!

5. Have confidence that if you speak out you will find you have friends, more possibly than you realize, but be willing to speak even if you feel utterly alone. This is a hard one. You've tamed (at least some of) your monsters, maybe you've tested out a few of your arguments with friends, but then you find there is something else you need to say, and you have no idea whether anyone will agree with you. This was what I did last summer with the "Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men" post. It came to me that I needed to say something--this was B.T. (Before Trump; I did the post on June 5, Trump announced his candidacy on June 16), so it really had nothing to do with the kinds of unhelpful things Mr. Trump is now saying. (NRO has just published a whole forum on conservatives who do not support Trump; I'm with them.*) All I knew was, it was somehow up to me to change the way in which I was hearing and reading people talking about the ideals of our Western tradition, and if I didn't say something, nobody would. So I wrote the post, published it--got one comment immediately asking me if I were proud of not having raped anybody...and then nothing. Nothing until this past week, when suddenly the whole Internet erupted. Well, okay, just a tiny fragment of it, but more than I had ever expected, and in ways I had not expected. So there I was: exposed to the world, alone.

And yet, immediately, I wasn't. Notes from colleagues I had never met started pouring in, well, okay, it felt like a downpour, even if it was more of a gentle rain. But they were there, friends whom I had not yet met, whom I might never have met if it had not been for my courage in speaking out. As I have been working on the blog posts this week to answer the questions that the participants in the Facebook thread asked, I have also been writing at length to all my new friends, amazed at how much we have in common, overjoyed to find out that I am not, in fact, alone, not even in academia. We were all just too anxious to speak up.

6. Welcome the debate, however it comes. At the beginning of a bout, fencers salute, to honor their opponent for being willing to give them an encounter. Whatever the intentions of your interlocutor (and those of my opponent on the Facebook thread were not eirenic, she wanted to shame me), the opportunity itself is a gift, because it is only through such encounters that you can train yourself as a Happy Warrior. It is one thing to bout with your friends at the club, it is wholly another to stand on the strip at the tournament and risk having to go home if you lose. It is much better to have the debate than to have others talking about you and not be given the chance to respond--this is the way most of our political "conversation" happens at the moment. That said, I am myself not to the point where I would feel comfortable actively seeking out the debate, and I am not sure that a Happy Warrior necessarily should. Which is to say, don't go picking fights, there is a time and a place for the bout, and out on the street isn't necessarily one of them. But when you find yourself challenged to a duel, recognize it as an opportunity, it is what you have been training for.

7. Argue the facts, not the emotions; never apologize for believing what you believe. Above all, do not take the attack personally, it isn't about you. You are in the debate, your opponent starts calling you names ("reactionary," "white supremacist," "not a feminist"), attributing beliefs to you of the most vicious sort. She may try to make you look ignorant, shame you by association, suggest that you are abusing your status. She will declare you an enemy if you do not accept her version of what is at stake. She will declare herself shocked--shocked--that anyone could possibly hold the beliefs that you do. Never retaliate in turn! You will have lost the bout the moment you give into the emotions she is trying to provoke. She is trying to get inside your head, do not let her. Stand your ground, stay cheerful, speak always in terms of "we," so as to establish that this is a shared conversation, not a duel to the death. State your facts positively, and watch yourself always for the temptation to suggest that she somehow is ignorant. Avoid as much as you can the use of the word "you."

8. Respect your opponent. This is your neighbor whom you are bouting. Not a demon, not an abstraction, but a human being. You do not win if you destroy her, only if you are able to change her heart. And you cannot change her heart if you forget that she has one. Everyone is orthodox to himself, there are reasons that she believes what she believes. She believes just as you do that she is on the side of the angels. She cares for the weak and the poor and the sick, the hungry, the helpless, the suffering. She cares for the victims of oppression. This is why she is so vicious in her attacks, she thinks you are a demon, that you do not have a heart, that the only way you can believe what you believe is because you must not care, otherwise you would believe as she does. This is how she gets inside your head, because you do care, you do want the best for all God's creatures, you do see the humanity in every human being. You simply disagree with her about how to save them from their distress. She will feel your disagreement as an attack, so be gentle, use only as much force as you need to state your case.

9. Remember that others are watching. In the end, no matter how well you argue, no matter how many facts you are able to give, odds are you will not, in fact, change your opponent's mind. But the bout isn't only about scoring touches on her (gently, gently, you don't need to bruise, just say what you need to say to support your case), it is also about how well you are able to present yourself and above all stay calm. What matters ultimately is that you remain cheerful and welcoming and willing to engage. You want this conversation, you welcome the opportunity to explain why you believe what you believe, you are grateful for her raising the question so that you can respond. Remember the early Christian martyrs, how they behaved. They did not rail against their torturers, simply stood their ground. And many of those watching were so inspired by their steadfastness and wisdom that they, too, were moved to faith. At the very least, you will make your watchers curious and want to know more. It is almost certain that they will not have heard the arguments you are making in quite these terms. Be ready to offer reading suggestions if anyone asks, but it is your responsibility to make the case as clearly as you can. Those watching will not be persuaded if you simply cite authorities without giving the facts.

10. Share your joy. God loves us and wants us to be happy. God has given us the great gift of life and of each other and of this world. It is the devil who tempts us to despair, to assume the worst in each other, to turn to violence to try to force each other to believe or behave in certain ways. There will be times in the bout when you may be tempted to give in, to say, "Oh, f*ck it, you're right, the world is doomed, the system is utterly corrupt, everyone is racist and evil." You don't believe this, even when you see the great evil that men do. It is always easier to think of ways in which the devil wins, easier to recall all the disasters and injustices and violence, than it is to remember all of the ways in which we are blessed. Your opponent will try to make it seem as if you are foolish for seeing the blessings when there are so many in the world who are not so blessed. Again, this is a temptation for you to refuse the good because the world is not perfect. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

[*UPDATE: Milo helped me change my mind about this, as well as adding another weapon to my arsenal: humor.]

Image: London, British Library, Harley 3244, fols. 27v-28: Virtues and Vices

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