When I was younger I was attracted to the self-sacrificial hero character in books and movies. You know, Gunga Din, or Steve McQueen in “The Sand Pebbles”. He wasn’t so much a tough guy who beat people up and won. He was sort of a bastard mix of Christ and a tough guy. You guys go on and escape. I’m of no use to use now; leave me on the pass with this machine gun and I’ll hold ’em off for a while. And then everyone pauses to notice how noble the guy is, and then they go off to their happy ending and he gets whacked. This guy shows up a lot in Westerns, obviously. I think there’s one per Western. As a heart-tugging moment in an action movie it’s fine.
The Hemingway “moment of truth” is a version of this. There’s danger, and a man puts himself in that danger and in some transcendent moment of life versus death he redeems himself. Probably this usually happens by dying, but it’s not a Christ-like sacrifice; he kicks ass *and* dies. It’s pretty questionable in a good novel, although Hemingway’s tough guys are a lot less cardboard that the ones in Westerns.
In America we have a big problem with the popularity of this character. All too often you see some guy who’s run out of winning options. He’s a laid-off industrial worker, maybe, or a petty criminal who’s facing a third strike, or even just a sad and dangerous domestic violence offender. His obvious fate is slow and humiliating doom, emasculation, poverty, incarceration, and admitting defeat in some battle that he’s convinced himself is important. What does he do? He walls himself up in his house, sometimes with a spouse or relative as hostage, and picks a gunfight with the police. They can’t take him alive! He’s not going to jail! He’ll go down shooting, and he’ll be remembered as the guy who faced his moment of truth and faced overwhelming force.
Nowadays they’re better at dealing with these guys; they have a lot of smart ways of dealing with “suicide by police”. Put previously they just killed him. As he banged away with ol’ Brown Bess a lot of professional tough guys with military rifles took him down. It was on the news and everyone remembered it. Our hero got his blaze of glory. A lot of the time, other people who wanted to go home that day got a blaze of glory too, despite their lack of interest in the idea.
From our protagonist’s point of view he was a Hemingway hero, Shane, and every other slow-talking granite-faced B actor who took a bullet for the romantic leads. It’s a lie, though. The guy who gets centerpunched by the SWAT team in his two bedroom house is usually a weaselly coward wifebeater, a beer-soaked unemployable waste of space, a serial car thief. His big Last Stand terrifies and endangers innocent people around him and causes expense and risk for the police. The moment of truth for him is a big fat traumatic nuisance for us. It’s like suicide with extra selfishness.
My ideal of maturity is different. An adult is someone who takes on responsibility for the welfare of others. Whether it’s manhood or womanhood, to me being a grownup implies giving up the self-centered drama of youth for the real rewards of community and family. My heroes are the people who can take a botched career or a prison sentence or a terrible divorce and go all the way through the damned thing, painful and lasting as it is. And that’s whether they “win” or not.
The theologian and anti-Nazi rebel Dietrich Bonhoefffer warned against what he called “cheap grace”, which loosely explained is redemption from sin without any change in behavior or belief. A good example is the televangelist who gets caught with a whore, yells SORRY KIND OF! in public, and goes right back to his plush existence.
That fake moment of truth, the dude ranch Western last stand, is a selfish refusal to face the long hard life sentence of being human. Real men, like real women, are worthy of honor when they have the courage to go the whole terrible distance and not justify themselves with a moment of false cheap bravery. Real grace is for grownups; it comes day by day and year by year, and not easily.