Licked Before You Begin

Day 310 of A Year of War and Peace

In the tired old town of Maycomb, Alabama there lived an elderly woman named Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose. Age had wrinkled her skin just as much as it had envenomed her mind. Few things pleased her more than peppering her neighbors with scurrilous invective. One day Jem Finch, son of Atticus, decided he could no longer endure Mrs. Dubose’s cruel insults, particularly those directed at his father, and he destroys her carefully cultivated camellia bushes in a misguided act of adolescent retribution. For this deed of vandalism Jem is sentenced to a month of reading to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon for a month. So, Ivanhoe in tow, Jem made his way to her home every day and he read his pages. Little did he know that this reading was more an act of kind comfort than of punishment. Mrs. Dubose, it turns out, was a lifelong morphine addict. She wished, however, to leave the world with the clarity of sobriety rather than under the turbidity of morphinism. Perhaps, she reasoned, the soothing sounds of literature would assuage the savage pangs of opioid withdrawal. When Jem learns of this, after her passing, he cannot believe it. He asks Atticus why he had to be nice to so nasty a person. “I wanted you to see what real courage is,” Atticus explains about Mrs. Dubose’s detox, “instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

The French soldiers marching a retreat from Moscow are licked before they begin. If that was ever in doubt today’s chapter certainly clears things up. Hunger grips them. Death takes them. Loss of arms transforms them from conquerors into the ready targets of vengeful Russian guerrillas.

How many of them are able to summon the fortitude of the frail Mrs. Dubose? Not many. Napoleon’s Chief of Staff Louis-Alexandre Berthier writes a pleading letter informing his emperor that many of his troops have fled. Those who remain are completely demoralized. If they are not rallied soon the entire army risks dissolution.

Fate is often a hostile ruler. Immortality dictates that Mrs. Dubose shall die. Napoleon orders the French soldiers to bear defeat with an honorable retreat. We are all presented with similar impossible conflicts. Our options are either to elude or to endure. Endurance, the virtuous choice, requires a stern and difficult realignment of attitude if tranquility of mind is to be preserved amidst the cruel vicissitudes of fate.


The man who does something under orders is not unhappy; he is unhappy who does something against his will. Let us therefore so set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances.

Seneca, Epistle LXII

This is the three hundred and tenth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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