If You Do Nothing Else in Life, When It Beats You Down, Please, Get Back Up

The story of “The Standing Man”

Photo by Simeon Lesley on Unsplash

In 1957, US lawyer James B. Donovan received the most thankless task of his career: Defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel at the height of the Cold War.

Donovan was an esteemed insurance attorney and partner at his law firm. He was 41 years old, married, and had four young children. The last thing he needed was the publicity of defending the most hated man in the country — and thus becoming a close second.

Unlike the many other lawyers the government had asked before, however, Donovan did not shy away when duty came knocking on his door. He agreed to take the case.

As difficult as it would become, one thing was clear from the start: Rudolf Abel was a remarkable man; a man whose only discernible flaw was that he had carried out his profession for a country other than the one he was in.

Abel never divulged any details of his work, never lost his composure, and his only response to Donovan’s repeated inquiry, “Do you ever worry?” was, “Would it help?” At least, that’s how Mark Rylance portrayed him in the movie Bridge of Spies, a dramatization of the real events surrounding Abel’s case.

Donovan believed Abel, like any man, deserved a fair trial, which, in America in the 1950s, was a tall order in and of itself. In a time when Black people had to use a different bathroom, when speaking Russian could get you arrested, and when women were “supposed to cook and look good,” imagine Donovan’s chances of an unbiased review of Abel’s deeds.

Sure enough, the court denied Donovan’s plea to make the FBI’s illegally obtained evidence inadmissible, just as no one bat an eye when the judge himself recommended the jury find Abel guilty — which they promptly did.

One third into the movie, with the sentence soon to be announced, Donovan’s only graspable win seems to be saving Abel from the electric chair, a prospect the latter, “though not his first choice,” also isn’t afraid of.

As he often does when visiting Abel in his cell, Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, nervously walks around, then stops mid-pace. For what feels like the first time, Abel begins to speak — and tells Donovan the following story:

“Standing there like that — you remind me of a man who used to come to our house when I was young. My father used to say, ‘Watch this man.’ So I did. Every time he came. Never once did he do anything remarkable.”

“And I remind you of him?”

“This one time, I was about the age of your son, our house was overrun by partisan border guards. Dozens of them. My father was beaten. My mother was beaten. And this man, my father’s friend — he was beaten. And I watched this man.

Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. So they hit him harder. Still, he got back to his feet. I think because of this they stopped the beating. They let him live.

‘Stoikiy Muzhik.’ I remember them saying it. ‘Stoikiy Muzhik.’ It means, uh, ‘Standing Man.’

Standing Man.”

Being a “Standing Man” is all there is to life. Getting back up is enough.

You don’t have to reach the top of the mountain. You don’t have to run or even take a single step. But if life comes to your house and beats you down, you get back up. You can crawl, get on all fours, raise yourself ever so slowly — as long as you stand up again, you have no reason to blame yourself.

When the day slips through your fingers, you accept the beating. You shower, have dinner, go to sleep, and tomorrow, you get back up. Standing Man.

When your best friend won’t talk to you, you take the beating. You sit, you cry, and the next day, you stare at your phone again. Will you pick it up? Who knows. The staring is what counts. Standing Man.

When you get fired, you very publicly accept that beating. You collect your things, you drag your feet out the door, and you worry about rent all the way home. You zone out in front of Netflix, and in the morning over cereal, a thought crosses your mind: “What happened?” Standing Man.

When you get sick, you fall to your knees from the beating. You pray and deny and wonder. One day, you call the doctor. “I need help.” Standing Man.

When your husband asks for a divorce out of nowhere, you’ll hardly stomach that beating. You nod on autopilot, but for a fraction of a second, you can feel yourself signing the papers, and, deep down, you know. Standing Man.

When you hit rock bottom, you’ll know you’re there. The beating’s evidence surrounds you. You barely open one eye, and all you see is rocks. The feeling in your fingers returns. You breathe. You groan. You push against the ground.

Standing Man.

Like Donovan, I felt moved by Abel’s story. I wasn’t sure why it spoke to me. When I thought about it, I realized: This is it. This is life. Standing Man. That’s all there is to it, and all there ever was.

Be a Standing Man. You can be content in this. Find peace. Take solace. When you’re a Standing Man (or Woman), no matter how much life lets you down, you’ll never feel as if you’ve let down yourself. You got back up. There is nothing else to ask of yourself.

When Abel tells Donovan his story, their struggles are only beginning. I don’t know what challenges you’re going through, or which trials you’ll be facing. I just know there will be many, and I hope when life beats you down, you will— like Donovan — prove to be exactly what Abel suspects: A Standing Man through and through.

Written by

I write for You. That’s my promise — and the name of my daily email full of inspiration, smart ideas, and emotional support: https://youletter.substack.com/

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