Courage – Would you have enough?
By Carol / April 27, 2016 /
Harriet Tubman. Oskar Shindler. Esther. People iconic for their courage and the bold actions they took to save the lives of others, actions that put their own lives at risk.
Every time I hear a story about someone who stands up to society, their peers, their family – someone who goes against the norm – to right an injustice, I wonder if I would be so brave. Fortunately, I have never had to put my own life on the line; fortunately, most of us never have to.
But most of us do encounter events in our daily lives when we see something happening that we know is wrong. Then we face the choice: engage or walk away, speak up or remain silent.
I confess, I have failed the test more often than I like to admit. One time in particular sticks in my mind.
For 30 years I worked in the public relations business, a job that sent me all over the United States interviewing farmers, veterinarians, and scientists who used my clients’ products. One trip to a North Carolina tobacco farm in 1977 opened my eyes to race relations as I’d never experienced it before, while leaving life-long scars on my heart.
As the interview wound down, the farmer and I were standing in the yard, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and local sports teams. Just then a young black boy, maybe eight or nine years old, came out of the barn.
“Hey, Joseph.” The farmer waved him over. “You need to dance for this lady.”
The boy stood, his arms limp at his sides, his bare feet covered in the soft dust of the lane.
I blanched. Dance for the lady? “Oh, no,” I excused myself. “I need to be going.”
“He likes to do it. He’s a real good dancer,” the farmer insisted.
The boy looked at me. I cannot recall if I smiled or even met his eyes.
Dance for the lady? All I could think about was slave owners forcing their slaves to entertain visitors. Sweat poured down my neck. Thunder roared in my ears. My eyes swam. I wanted no part of this. Yet I could see no way out.
The boy danced for me. And I said nothing.
Why? Out of some misguided sense that I would offend the farmer, my client’s customer? Because I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say? Because I was a coward? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I will always wear the shame of not stopping that demeaning act.
Confronted with a blatant injustice today, I hope I would do better, that I would have the courage to act. But who knows for sure? The circumstances are seldom simple, the decisions seldom clearcut.
The question of if, when, and how to engage in the face of injustice is at the heart of the novel I’m writing now. In the course of her work as a consultant, my main character must face her own biases and decide how long she can remain on the ‘it’s not my job’ fence.
The story is autobiographical only in that the issue is one I’ve always thought about. Like me, my main character doesn’t always get it right.
What has your experience been in speaking up – or not – when you saw something that seemed unfair?
I like the theme of your new novel, Carol. I remember, as a boy, watching while two friends (and it would be easy to disown them but they are still friends, albeit distant ones) pushed another boy into a bunch of nettles when we were on a summer camp. I did nothing to stop them, nor did I help their victim. I should not have allowed that to happen, obviously, and feel a certain amount of shame for my lack of response. Those two bullies and I spoke about that event years later, and they, too, regretted what they’d done. None of us are perfect, but we try to learn from our mistakes, and, hopefully, prevent such episodes from ever being repeated.
Thanks for sharing your story, David. I believe moments like that happen to all of us, and they do shape how we think about ourselves and others. Your conclusion is spot on – we can forgive ourselves for our shortcomings when we learn from those mistakes and work for a better future. You took a big step by talking with the two bullies about the incident. I can imagine that was a healing conversation in many ways. I wonder how the boy who was pushed into the nettles remembers the event as an adult?
I too am quite taken with this theme, Carol. In a way, you’ve defined the ultimate hero. Someone who would step out of their comfort zone to help another, and do so at their own peril (physically or psychically). Then my mind jumps to today’s heroes: Rock Stars, athletes, et al. One thing that still seems to hold for the true hero, they never think of themselves in that light. It’s always, “I had no choice; I just had to; I’m sure anyone would have …” I was taught this years ago in an undergrad course and since then I pay attention to news reports on heroes; sure enough, I’ve yet to find an exception.
I’m looking forward to your next novel.
That’s an interesting observation, Janet. Now that you point it out, I would say it’s true in what I see in news reports to – firemen, police officers, bystanders who jump into help – all of them say that very thing. I am thinking now of whether we could make at least two divisions in circumstances – ones in which there is great urgency and therefore adrenaline-fueled, spur-of-the-moment action happens without much thought – and others in which life is not at risk and where those observing may have time to think. My main character is more in this later category, seeing activities that she considers wrong but for which she is able to think of logical reasons not to engage. Until she must. Thanks for adding complexity to the conversation.
I thought I had commented here, but I guess not. 🙂
The question of whether I would be brave enough to do something–to fight against evil and injustice–is something I often wonder about, and something I’ve written about, too. Then there’s the other side, too–why do people go along with injustice?
I think Janet’s point about heroes never thinking that they are heroes is interesting. It’s something I never thought about it.
Why do people go along with injustice is something I ask myself and eventually a question my main character faces herself. As I describe in the example I shared, I look back on that event and still don’t really know why I didn’t stop him. In the moment, I am certain I was shocked. The entire event probably didn’t last a minute or two. But often these flashes of injustice are brief. We are left to struggle with our response – or lack of response – for much longer.
The theme of your next book presents many powerful questions. I’d imagine that there will be no lack of conflict in your story. And your post also presents a fundamental question that I think most of us face concerning courage. I certainly know that I carry painful shame that I hadn’t acted more courageously when opportunity presented. However, it’s nice to claim some redemption in our writing. Can’t wait to read your next book.
Your books (The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap – and the soon-to-be published Seven Year Dress) address this same theme, Paulette, which is one reason I find them so interesting. Writing about these situations does offer some redemption, along with the reminder that we are all human and all imperfect.
Carol, my heart aches for that right along with you, but please, be gentle with yourself. I think it’s more than courage. We can’t act until we see what to do or know what the words are. When taken by surprise, few of us do. I would have done exactly what you did, and probably would today. I seldom think clearly in such moments, then, like you, second guess myself forever. Quite frankly, even as I sit here and think, I’m floundering for the right message in that situation.
David mentions standing quietly by. I recall a horrific incident in junior high when I was verbally assaulted by a bullying girl after lunch. She was surrounded by half a dozen other girls who stood with downcast eyes and silence, including one I thought was a good friend. Hopefully the others forgot about it. I never have. Even then I knew the others were afraid of the bully, not wanting her to turn on them. Life has gone on and today I’m actually friends with that bully.
Anyway, I appreciate the courage it takes to air the topic even now. Thank you for that.
Thank you for sharing your story, Sharon, and for cutting me slack. Part of the value in sharing these stories is the opportunity to be reminded that we are all human and often have shared these painful life lessons. Like you, I seldom think of the right retort in the moment, even now when I have more maturity to draw on.
Your experience as the recipient of the unjust act gives you a unique perspective. Perhaps all the players in these dramas are marked in some deep way. It is interesting that you and your bully have grown into a friendship. I’m curious if you and she have talked about the incident and if so, how she perceived it then and now?
No, we have not talked about it, and I don’t plan to bring it up. She lives in Phoenix, so we’re only loosely in touch, and I don’t see much to be gained at this point. I expect she’d apologize and say something like “I was always running off at the mouth back then,” which would be true.
I’d be more interested in knowing what one particular girl who stood by silently thought and felt, but I’m not in touch with her, and if she doesn’t remember, I don’t want to remind her.
The freedom and opportunity to write is such a blessing!
Writing is a blessing. One workshop exercise was to write a scene, each time from the perspective of another character. I’ve done that with a couple of scenes in my novel as I tried to figure out why certain characters act the way they do. Among other things, I developed more empathy. Everyone has their reasons even if they’re not easy to accept.
Carol … Your story rings so true … I had a similar experience in graduate school where my landlord (in a city on the Mason Dixon line) refused to let a friend sublet my apartment while I was gone for the summer. She made it clear that if “that woman” (black, of course) spent one night in my apartment, she would have all my furniture and belongings thrown out on the street for Salvation Army to pick up. If I’d had the courage to stand by my principles, I would have let my friend stay. I caved in, telling myself that standing on principle would not provide housing for either of us and my friend agreed … but the memory has embarrassed and shamed me ever since.
Mary, your experience and the examples others have shared show the complexity both of injustice and our reasons for reacting (or not) as we do. I expect your very practical and understandable response could have been how I would have responded. Thanks for sharing your story.
Carol, the courageous ones, those willing to stand up for victims regardless of the price to themselves and/or families and friends, are rare. Most of us, myself included, find a way to rationalize non-action or worse. Your character’s moral choices will be very familiar to your readers. They actually relate to a number of the examples in this post: https://janefriedman.com/suspense-slow-reveal/
For me, peace is a high value. That can make me conflict-averse. Being in a leadership position taught me to look at every situation from multiple perspectives. There were times when I failed to show the courage I so admire in others.
Your role in leadership and my career in public relations led us to the same place, Shirley – the ability and requirement to look at situations from multiple perspectives. Pluses and minuses to such perspectives, but one outcome for sure is that we do not respond quickly. Certainly not in the moment something happens.
Thanks for sharing Jane Friedman’s post. I’ll be studying the techniques provided for building suspense with a slow reveal to see how well I’ve accomplished it so far in my WIP and how I can strengthen it.
Carol, today I attended the funeral of someone who was always there for the underdog. She was the wife of a very beloved pastor and there were times when she put him in quite an awkward position because of her compulsion to help. It was like an obsession. This is probably a psychological condition. At the same time, she made us aware of how we so often don’t want to get involved for fear of offending someone or of making the situation worse than it is. She could be rude at times when she felt someone was being unfair. Her example taught me to be more courageous to go out of my way when I observed someone acting rudely and belittling toward others. She was especially aware of how parents treated their children and often admonished them, which did nothing to increase her popularity. She would definitely be an interesting character study for a novel!
The pastor’s wife sounds like quite the interesting person, Elfrieda. Her actions bring up a number of thoughts. When did her view of what was right infringe on another person’s opinion on the same subject – child rearing for instance? How does one intervene in a way that isn’t seen as more rude than helpful? What effect does one’s need to step in have on others (her husband) and should that play into whether one intervenes or not?
Good or bad, it sounds as though she was a model for others both on the need to stand up for the underdog and on how to do (or not do) it.
I have to identify with everyone here. The earliest memories of seeing any kind of bullying like that was when I was in elementary school. Kids that age don’t know why they do what they do. When kids taunted other kids, I would stay quiet. Nowdays, I know I’d stand up and say something. I don’t know if it’s due to maturity, or the changing times. I do think, however, it’s actually easier to risk bodily harm than being blackballed socially. It seems people seek acceptance in the group even more than their personal safety.
Peer pressure is a huge factor – for kids and adults. The heightened discussion of bullying at least makes us aware of what’s happening and offers tools for how to intervene without risking great physical danger. Unfortunately, the discussion doesn’t appear to have eliminated bullying. Unfortunately, news reports detail all too many examples happening regularly in grade school, high school, college, and adult settings.
In high school, a boy, known for seeking attention and drama, found a reason to berate me publicly. Later, I asked my boyfriend why he hadn’t come to my rescue. His answer surprised me. He said he knew the kid was just acting that way for attention, and figured he (my boyfriend) would just be falling into his trap by reacting. But more importantly, he added, by stepping in, he would have cast me in the role of a victim, and what he saw was a person in control (me) patiently waiting for an idiot’s tantrum to play out. Reading this now, you may think my boyfriend let me down with his lame excuse, but, in fact, it caused me to bolster my own inner resiliency, and for that I am grateful. While I do believe we should stand up for others when we see a wrong committed (and I hope, like the other responders above, that I would do the right thing when faced with that challenge), I might also be wondering if I am creating a victim by my action. Reading a situation is tricky. Carol, I know I’ll be able to relate to your novel’s main character, who doesn’t always get it right, but sure tries.
You raise an interesting and important point, Nan. We can’t know what’s going on inside the bully, the victim, or the bystanders – or what impact the event will have on them. It seems to me, your boyfriend’s reaction was remarkably insightful for someone that age. As you say, his excuse caused you to develop greater inner resiliency – something that may not have happened if you hadn’t talked with him after the fact. You were a victim of a bully whether your boyfriend stepped in or not. You grew beyond victim when he helped you see a bigger picture. Thanks for adding a thought-provoking aspect to the discussion.