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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Courage Book Review: Beautiful Souls

I've just finished reading Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, by Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).  This book shares the stories of several people in different times and different walks of life who demonstrated moral courage at great risk: a Swiss border officer who defied the law to help Jews flee from Nazi oppression; a Serb soldier who "identified" Croat prisoners as Serbian to save them from genocide; an Israeli soldier refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories; a financial adviser blowing the whistle on a Ponzi scheme that was bilking thousands of investors of their life savings; a U.S. military prosecutor questioning the treatment of Muslim POWs at Guantanamo Bay.  Press interviewed all of these people, trying to dig to the bottom of what causes "ordinary" people to make decisions that turn them into rebels, renegades or outliers.  It's fascinating reading, although somewhat disconcerting.   Although Hollywood would have us believe that the moral hero rides into the sunset to the sounds of a grand and inspiring soundtrack, none of these actual moral heroes obeyed their conscience without paying a heavy price.  

Press points out that at the very least,  refusing to conform stirs anger and resentment among those who are conforming.  If you and I are both members of Group A, and I announce that the activities of Group A are morally questionable or even evil, then by implication you accept their validity if you don't walk out with me.  What is striking about the people in these profiles is that they were almost all people who fervently upheld the values and principles of their group originally; it was that very conviction that led them to break ranks when those values became distorted or poisoned.  As the military prosecutor poignantly stated, his sworn duty to protect the U.S. Constitution made it impossible for him to accept what he saw without speaking out.  Yet the consequences for all these conscientious resistors were significant: social exclusion, financial ruin, loss of security, loss of faith in previously esteemed institutions.

It is difficult to read these stories without feeling some misgivings about moral courage and the price it exacts.  Does raising a child to be a good citizen of the world, who has conviction, integrity, and an audible conscience place that child at risk?  In my opinion it does, and yet I also hear my own conscience telling me it's the right thing for me to do.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Death of Edith Cavell

A number of years ago I encountered the story of Edith Cavell for the first time and was strongly tempted to write a book about her.  The book plan got sidelined, but the story has stayed with me.  Edith Cavell was an English nurse at the turn of the 20th century.  Professional nursing was still relatively new, and trained nurses and nursing schools were few and far between.  Because Cavell had spent time in Belgium in her younger days, she was invited to go there to help start that country's first professional nursing school.

It was while she was engaged in this project that World War I began, and it wasn't long before her nursing school was recruited as a full-fledged hospital for Allied soldiers.  Belgium, sitting between Germany and France, was the scene of heavy fighting as the German army advanced.  Cavell's hospital was soon filled with wounded English soldiers, and when they recovered sufficiently, Cavell smuggled them to neutral Netherlands so they could return safely to their units, or to England.  Over 200 soldiers evaded capture by the German army through her efforts.

For this "crime," Cavell was eventually arrested by the Germans and tried for treason - and executed by firing squad, despite frantic, international, diplomatic efforts to prevent her sentence from being carried out.

Before facing the firing squad, Cavell famously said, "Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." 

Looking back through 100 years, we can speculate about the types of courage that may have motivated Nurse Cavell in her choices.  Becoming a nurse at all in that day was a risky move - it wasn't something "nice girls" did.  But she did.   Then simultaneously running a hospital and a smuggling operation would have required a degree of fortitude and executive management that somewhat boggles the mind.  Intellectual courage would have enabled focus and adaptability.  We know that she was a devout member of the Anglican church, and it seems fair to say that spiritual courage - that which fortifies us with a sense of purpose and meaning and makes forgiveness possible - was a significant part of her makeup.  (She was the daughter of a vicar, and raised with an ethic of sharing). Moral courage was clearly there, as well as the physical courage that nursing requires, especially wartime nursing.  She must also have had a very strong internal locus of control to believe that she was capable of effecting change amid the chaos of war, and to act so purposefully in on that conviction.

Much beyond that is difficult to surmise.  She was known as a private woman, reserved and formal toward her students and patients.  During her court-martial she made no attempt to disavow her activities, and she reportedly went to the firing squad with composure.  She was clearly a woman of great courage.

It is important to us on Lion's Whiskers, however, to make it clear that courageous action is not limited to life-and-death risks such as the ones Edith Cavell took.  We have every reason to admire her courage, but we can't let it convince us that because we haven't done anything like this and faced a firing squad, we have not shown courage.  We are all capable of courage, because the risks we face are proportionate to our capacities and our circumstances.   If a teen speaks out against a popular bully and risks ostracism, it is no less courageous because there's no firing squad in the offing.  A social "firing squad" can be devastating, and the number of teens who commit suicide because of it are tragic evidence.  

So let Edith Cavell inspire, but not intimidate. 



You can read more about Edith Cavell here on the website dedicated to her memory.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Art of Misdirection

A skilled magician is a usually a master of misdirection.  While keeping the audience's attention focused on something that seems important but isn't, the magician is accomplishing a clever deception just to the side.  The cognitive bias known as "inattentional blindness" or "perceptual blindness" causes our brains to ignore vast quantities of sensory information.  If we are vigilantly focused on one thing, this inattentional blindness can be even stronger.  (I like to this this is why an almost-13-year-old with a paintbrush in her hand doesn't hear my voice saying it's time to set the table for dinner).

Inattentional blindness is a characteristic of the human brain that storytelling and storytellers can really use to advantage, and parents often do it quite naturally.  In fact, most parents will quickly develop a whole bag of tricks for distracting a child's attention from something that is happening or just about to happen.  From bright noisy toys to the spell-binding "Once upon a time," misdirection tends to narrow the focal range and shut out the rest of the world - for a while.

And yet while the attention is focused, the world is still there.  It doesn't actually go away, and we may absorb those sensory inputs without being aware.  Here is a story my mother told me once that made a deep impression on me.   Because time is part of the our physical experience, patience is associated with physical courage.  So, here's a story combining physical courage and the art of misdirection.


Long ago in China, a young man set his heart on becoming a master jade carver.  Fired with enthusiasm, he went to the greatest jade carver in the land and asked to become his student.  The master agreed, and placed a piece of jade in the young man's hand.  "Please sit, we can begin right away."

The young man eagerly sat with the stone in his hand, his gaze on the teacher.  "Please tell me everything you know about jade."

Nodding, the old man began to tell a long and rambling story about his own youth, and the student waited patiently for the lesson to begin.  The story was actually a bit boring in parts, and the student clenched the jade in his hand to curb his impatience while the old man went on and on.  At last, the master said, "Oh, it is late.  You must come back tomorrow."

The next day the student came again, and the master handed him another piece of jade.  "Here, take a seat.  Let us begin."  Now I will learn everything about jade! the student said to himself.  But to his great disappointment, the master carver launched into another long story.  The student tried very hard to focus on this story, sure that at any moment it was going to get to the point.  But again, the master interrupted his own story and said, "Oh dear.  It's time for dinner.  Come back tomorrow."

Day after day this went on, with the teacher handing the student yet another piece of stone.  Every day the student listened with his whole heart, trying to understand how these stories were teaching him everything about jade while he held one stone after another in his hands.  He grew discouraged, thinking he had made a terrible mistake.  At last, after this had gone on for many months, he arrived at his teacher's house and said, "Master, forgive me, but when will you teach me about jade?"

The jade carver picked up yet another piece of stone and tossed it to the young man, who caught it deftly in two hands.  "Now, this piece of jade -" the master began.

"This is not jade," said the student, who had not even opened his hands to look at the stone.

The teacher nodded.  "Ah, I see I have now taught you everything I know."