Commonly regarded as the apex of courage in the face of sheer inevitability, the story of three hundred Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae remains etched into our collective memory thousands of years after it ended. In the face of imminent death, under the leadership of King Leonidas, these men died on the battlefield—a badge of honor as their heroic stand rang euphoniously throughout Greece. Now a tableau of courage, renditions of this story have taken on multiple incarnations.
The story came up on the podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know—the name got me, I was curious what stuff I should know. The host referenced a moment in Steven Pressfield fictional retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae from his work Gates of Fire in which Pressfield depicts a unique take on courage. In this brief scene, King Leonidas paused and spoke with a woman, Lady Paraleia, whose son and husband were both counted among the three hundred. He deftly shared with her details which he had withheld from others—specifically his reason for selecting the three hundred men to enter death with him in battle and what that choice had to do with her. The men, he told her, were selected not because of their own prowess, but because of the strength of their women. Once they had died, Greece would look to Sparta and Sparta would look to women like her for strength.
“‘If they behold your hearts riven and broken with grief, they, too, will break. And Greece will break with them. But if you bear up, dry-eyed, not alone enduring your loss but seizing it with contempt for its agony and embracing it as the honor that it is in truth, then Sparta will stand. And all Hellas will stand behind her.
Why have I nominated you, lady, to bear up beneath this most terrible of trials, you and your sisters of the Three Hundred? Because you can.’”
There is an extraordinary candor in this moment, not simply in the stratagem, but the wisdom in entrusting their futures to those who can best endure it. She did nothing to deserve it. Indeed, suffering was given to her simply because she could handle it. In such a brief exposition, Pressfield reveals something oft considered, but less frequently elucidated: that our capacity for virtue and vice may vary from person to person and that every burden is born for and with others.
Courage For Our Friends
This is not to say the potential for each person is static, as the skill of endurance and courage can be forged and strengthened by extraordinary inclination or by training. We understand this with respect to physical attributes. We understand it with psychological qualities too, for example, someone whose family has a legacy of alcoholism may abstain from drinking. But it is another degree removed to consider certain virtues in more conceptual terms.
Courage is, by its very nature, not in abundance—at least not in the way we generally conceive of it.
For many, the tales of old resonate with us for how well they awaken the caliber and desire to act. It is, to paraphrase and repackage Chesterton, as children our fears were boojums and dragons, but these stories exist to remind us these things can be slain. As adults, however, our courage and willingness to recall these things—to abide where others have forfeit and to enter where others are tepid—grow blunted over the course of daily life. Stories like the one in Gates of Fire engender confidence in ourselves as we look to those who stand firm in the face of utter impossibility. Our courage grows.
The kind of courage required in stories overlaps with real life when our friends and allies are met with an utter impossibility of their own. In the face of great suffering we watch as they are given courage, whether by gifting, training, or somehow developed. Their courage becomes a gift not just for them but for the onlookers because this virtue belongs not only to them, but to others as well, for how it inspires and spurs people forward. Their courage is infection.
A line in The Return of the King illustrates this idea well. As the casus belli is clear and a call for aid answered, preparing to ride into battle and into the embrace of death, Eowyn whispers to Merry, “Courage Merry, courage for our friends.” In that moment, she exhibits an understanding that what was poured into her cup may not be only for her. And it pays off. Her courage is infectious.
It is tremendous to have those who have experienced seasons of unique burdens and have carried them well to offer guidance in word and deed. Their capacity to walk where most have yet to tread helps to guide those who follow them. I am consistently impressed with the vulnerability of those who offer these parts of their lives. I’ve watched a friend stare down rejection and carry forward and seen a mother love a child whose challenges leave her daily in tears. These moments of courage whisper to me, “You are not alone.” I gather courage from their stories.
It is heartbreaking to consider the depths of pain friends and family have experienced. No amount of courage shown stitches the wounds of life. But that does not mean bearing burdens cannot have redemptive qualities. Infectious courage is one of those.
With Our Friends
What has been asked deeply for those who endure is not for them to go alone, but to do so with others—together with one another.
Believers with the breadth of scripture and others around them can look and see this example not only in their friends, but also in their texts and in their history. In the stories of our faith, when these times of suffering have come, there is no shortage of people around to help sustain and manage pain together. Whether in Hannah’s weeping at her barrenness, Elijah loneliness in the wilderness, or the stories of Peter escaping prison, no one is truly alone. Hannah’s husband hurts alongside her and she’s remembered by God, God sustains Elijah through ravens, and Peter sprints to his friends. I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew, where even the birds are watched and cared for, and how much more valuable are people? Those who lead the way in these endeavors, courageous as they are, are not there alone, nor is their suffering unnoticed.
What I appreciate about this scene with King Leonidas and Lady Paraleia is how the contours of the conversation go, closing with her thoughts, now understanding what has been asked of her.
“I broke down, weeping. Leonidas pulled me to him in kindness; I buried my face in his lap, as a girl does with her father, and sobbed, unable to constrain myself. The king held me firmly, his embrace neither stern nor unkind, but bearing me up with gentleness and solace.”
There is a tenderness in this scene, juxtaposing the dauntless Leonidas now taken with the care of a father. My mind immediately scans to the scene in Revelation where Jesus wipes away the tears from our eyes. Those who suffer deeply are not just in the presence of friends, they are held tight in the arms of the Lord and know what is handed to them has not been given lightly.
Cover image by Tobias Mrzyk.