The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted

Yesterday, I was helping my son to research famous speeches so he can pick one to do a presentation on as part of his English homework. There were the usual suspects – “I have a dream” and “We shall fight on the beaches” – and a whole host of others, many of which I had not encountered before. I myself, being both a woman and a historian, was keen to introduce my son to Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech. Can this really be bested? ” I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Go girl!

The boy though, was unimpressed. He wanted to find a speech that related to some of his interests (trains and planes). One suggestion was JFK’s going to the moon speech, but that too didn’t gel. Finally, we settled on Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation following the space shuttle Challenger accident. We listened to it on YouTube, then printed out the transcript and analysed it for rhetorical devices. We highlighted emotive language, repetition, the use of personal pronouns, etc.

However, what struck me most about the speech was how it acknowledged the pain of a nation in mourning, yet was able to project a defiant, resilient, and even an upbeat message in the midst of this tragedy. It’s a powerful speech that resonates more than 30 years on, and has relevance to our situation today as we try to emerge from the pandemic that has held us hostage for months and months.

The launch of the space shuttle Challenger was watched live on television across the United States, with millions of schoolchildren tuning in to see a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, go into space and teach a lesson from there. Instead, they saw a horrifying explosion seconds after lift-off. Reagan addressed the children in his speech as follows:

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

He went on to affirm that the tragic accident would not stop future space exploration.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

As I listened to these words, I compared their sentiment with the messaging we are bombarded with on a daily basis about staying safe, not letting our guard down and the fresh worries being put in our minds about virus mutations and vaccine-induced thrombosis. It’s a far cry from “Keep calm and carry on.” It seems to me as if the goalposts keep moving and our state of emergency keeps replicating itself, not willing to let us go from the firm grip it has us in. In some strange version of Stockholm Syndrome, many people have so accustomed themselves to hiding away in their homes, protecting themselves with their masks and watching the daily press briefings for the latest dose of fear-inducing headlines, that they have fallen in love with their captivity.

Thankfully, as a teacher, I am considered critical enough to the national effort that I have been released from captivity and allowed to go back to work. It’s a captivity I have been chafing against. If I had been allowed to, I would have continued teaching my classes in school all the way through this pandemic. It’s a disappointment to me that the great majority of my fellow teachers were clamouring for the opposite. Instead of fighting for schools to stay open for all children, they fought for our confinement at home. When school re-openings were announced, they complained that it was not “safe”.

But what does it mean to be safe? Is it sitting at home getting back pain, putting on weight and developing mental health issues, all of which are likely to contribute to the shortening of our lives? Perhaps being “safe” is just a chimera, obscuring the real truth: to be alive is to be at daily risk of sickness and death.

Many years ago, when I was 9, I went on holiday to visit family in Syria and came back with Typhoid, which had me hospitalised and isolated for several weeks. I could have died, but I didn’t. My father had only a few months to live after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, and my mother only a few hours after she had an aneurysm just a year later. One minute they were there, then they were gone. Life is fleeting, and we don’t know when the grim reaper will come to call. We can coddle ourselves up to the maximum, thinking it will keep us safe, but there is no such thing as safe. We cannot hide away from life and the risks that come with being alive. So perhaps we should remind ourselves that sometimes painful things happen, but the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.

In the final part of his speech, Reagan paid tribute to the seven astronauts on board the space shuttle Challenger, quoting the poem High Flight, which celebrated the joy of flying high up in the sky and was written by John Gillespie Magee, a fighter pilot in World War II who was killed in action at the tender age of 19.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Another reminder, that our lives can be long or short – fate is capricious – but what matters is how we live in the time that we are given.