SHAKESPEARE'S observation ``The better part of valor is discretion'' is often true. But, for me, discretion doesn't come easily. Spontaneity or candor is liable to assert itself. I find that discretion cannot be learned by rote, for it follows no familiar pattern. And however discreet I endeavor to be, it's the indiscretions I seem to remember most. Especially those - perpetrated by me or by others - that arose through misjudged valor. If I should briefly summarize a few of them in the form of a play in three acts, the scenario would go like this:
It is raining as I board a city-bound train. To avoid sprinkling my fellow commuters, I hang my dripping umbrella on a nearby ledge. Some time later the train pulls into a city station. The passenger seated between me and my umbrella alights. Train begins to pull out when another passenger seated opposite suddenly exclaims, ``Hey, he's forgotten his umbrella.'' He grabs my umbrella and throws it onto the rapidly receding platform. I assure him there is no problem. I can easily return to retrieve it. Which I do. Problem: to convince the stationmaster. But he kindly honors my claim. Exeunt.
Scene 1. On board a crowded commuter bus. All seats are occupied. I am standing next to a young man wearing shoulder-length hair and faded jeans. Bus stops. Seat in front of me is vacated. Senior citizen boards bus. Faded Jeans moves to occupy vacant seat. Grabbing him by the arm, I growl, ``No, my boy, that seat is not for you, it's for that lady who's just got on.'' Faded Jeans appears surprised, indignant. At this point I realize I am gripping the arm not of a young man but of a young woman. Curtain.
Scene 2. A few mornings later. Same bus. Same regular passengers (mostly). All seats are occupied. Bus stops. Senior citizen boards bus. No one offers her a seat. She moves slowly toward the rear where I am sitting. I prepare to offer my seat but find myself ruminating, ``I'm already too conspicuous on this bus. They probably think I'm a nut.'' But I stand anyway. Next moment several others respond likewise. I feel compassion flash around the bus. I'm at peace with my fellow passengers.
In my office. I dial a telephone number and because of crossed lines find myself privy to a friendly conversation between two ladies. I am about to dial again when I hear one of them say to her friend, ``Now, my dear, what day shall I come and see you?'' Her friend, evidently considering, does not reply. So, to help the conversation along a little, I say, ``Tuesday.'' To which the first lady replies, ``Oh, no, Tuesday won't do.'' Curtain.
Admittedly, the final act in this trilogy might be better described as spontaneity rather than indiscretion. But spontaneity, like valor, is liable to throw discretion to the winds.
When Sir Walter Raleigh spontaneously threw his cloak into the mud for good Queen Bess, he didn't know he would later fall out of favor. But his valor made history. And one wonders what would have been the course of history without the valor and faith that spurred the Pilgrim Fathers to set sail for the unknown.
There must, indeed, be times when valor and discretion are both needed. And who can say which is the better part?