"Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another." ~ Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway, who often signed his name "E.H.", revolutionized American prose with his short sharp sentences and barebones clarity. I've always been in awe of his ability to build a tale out of just about nothing, epitomized by an almost legendary six-word short story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Hemingway made his readers do the work and through that burden of imagining brought us into his stories as visceral, emotionally invested participants. The capacity to compress a thousand thoughts into a few short words is a brilliance shared by few, but to do that and evoke emotion is true and rare genius.
That's why it was with some surprise that I happened upon another genius while wasting time on that great timewaster of our age, Facebook. Erin Hanson, a 19-year-old Australian poet who signs her name diminutively and no doubt self-consciously as "e.h.", shares not only Hemingway's initials but his magnificent ability. For a 19-year-old, her archive is amazingly robust, but from among the wordspills, twelve words leapt out and caught my heartstrings because they convey a profound philosophical truth.
“What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”
It's an intimate exchange, as if between a parent and a child, and perhaps that's why it touched me so deeply, because I have kids and it encapsulates everything I've tried to teach my son and daughter. It's a plaintive question, full of uncertainty yet asked, contextually, with an implied trust in the answer... perhaps even an existential trust.
But it's the answer, in the form of another question, that displays genius because it leaves the reader with no certainty about the future, but inspired nonetheless, and hopeful.
The exchange obviously means many things to many people, since it's carved on plaques and typed on tintype and plastered on Facebook and even tattooed on backs, and I somehow suspect not all the recipients are alike in political orientation. But to me it carries the essence of what I understand, on a very deep level, to be conservatism.
Conservatism has a reputation amongst progressives as a curmudgeonly entrenchment in the status quo, clinging to outdated concepts and fighting off glossy new inevitabilities. But that's not what modern conservatism is. It's suspicious of the post-modern to be sure, and more so of progressive shiny-pony syndrome in which each new trend is embraced as wonderful simply by virtue of being new and shiny, but it is hesitant in a look-before-we-leap kind of way that understands the value of lessons learned, and not as a wholesale rejection of the new.
Progressives and conservatives alike believe that society has a duty to take care of those who cannot help themselves, but progressives tend to include in that category those who will not help themselves... preferring to search for windmills euphemistically referred to as "root causes" to explain away failure so they can "fix" it. Conservatives understand that failure exists, has always existed, will always exist, and that nothing any political ideology can ever do will ever erase that truth. But the potential for success also exists, and conservatives choose to celebrate that rather than focus on a quixotic quest to eliminate failure and the consequences of failure. Some people see that aspect of conservatism as pessimism. I see it as realism. Living in the ought is not a healthy way to exist in the is.
But more than that, modern conservatism is a realistic forward-looking philosophy that embraces the human condition, with its vicissitudes and disorganization and spirit of adventure and need to explore. Conservatism rejects the notion of the perfectibility of man that resides at the core of progressivism... the idea that every human problem can be overcome if we just throw enough money and good wishes at it. It celebrates individualism rather than collectivism, risk-and-reward instead of mundane certainty, progress rather than stagnation.
Conservatism believes that personal responsibility begets personal initiative, that failure is a necessary stepping stone to success, that life is what we make of it and not what is given to us. That's why the "what if ?" is so quintessentially conservative... it allows the reality of risk and potential reward rather than the certainty of safe mediocrity. If it were structured as a progressive exchange it would no doubt end with a "we'll catch you" or some such milquetoast collectivist boilerplate.
I have no idea what ideological persuasion e.h. is possessed of, but E.H. may have supplied an alternative answer to the question "what if I fall?" According to Hemingway, "the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places." I would argue that most are stronger at the broken places, and better, and happier because of them. It is only those who buy into the "structural" excuses for failure who truly fail, because it is they who allow failure to define them. The rest of us fly.
— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.