Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.
— Robert F Kennedy, quoted by his brother Edward at Bobby’s funeral 1968
Bobby Kennedy’s depiction of moral courage being a ‘rare commodity’ echoes his brother John F Kennedy’s admonition (which he wrongly ascribed to Dante, as it turned out):
The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those
who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.
Taken in a pair, these expressions of sentiment (available at www.jfklibrary.org) speak loudly to me about what motivates and galvanises heroic ‘outsiders’ and truth-tellers — and the whistle blowers or crusaders we’ve been thinking about recently.
It takes courage to be willing to bear the disapproval, the scorn, or the censure of others.
Author Steven Pressfield identifies our foe as ‘resistance’ — the thing that shows up (in any of a million disguises) to stop us — or even just slow us down — as we set out in defence of our principles.
A friend of mine is in that battle right now. She spoke out about a dodgy business operation, made a public statement about how the business appeared to operate, and issued a warning. Now the operators have come chasing her: first with a barrage of threatening legal letters but lately with threats of an entirely different nature.
The challenge now is: How should I respond? Whose fight is it, really? What now?
A long time ago I heard the facetious remark, “You are, by definition, the centre of the universe” and its corollary, “There’s no-one else out there.” (I’m sorry if that’s too cryptic.)
So, in the end, each one of us has to find our own moral centre – the place inside us from which our hunger or thirst for the better, the noble things lies. It’s this very same moral centre which drives our outrage, our determination to ‘improve the lot of others’ and to ‘strike out against injustice’ as Bobby Kennedy said.
Heroic language – like those words of the Kennedys – reverberates and motivates us not because of the fine words (although they are), or because they appeal to some heroic journey ‘archetype’, but for this reason:
Expressions of moral truth resonate with the truth that already lies within us.
Sometimes, finding our courage is just a matter of getting attuned to that voice within ourselves, and letting it speak through us. Often that means stepping out of our own way, dealing with our fear, and being willing to bear the disapproval, opposition and scorn and of others.
Edmund Burke got it right with:
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil
is that good men do nothing.
Eventually, each of us has to locate the line in ourselves that, once crossed, provokes or inspires us to action. Sometimes that will mean speaking out, taking a principled stand (or continuing to hold it) in the face of potential reprisal.
What challenges do you face?