"Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately." - Elie Wiesel
My mom used to read to me at night…until I was in high school! She read children’s books to me when I was little, sports books when I was in grade school, and as I matured, she read biographies and history. One theme was consistent in the books she chose – moral courage. Moral courage is defined as the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences.
I’m not sure if it was Mom’s intention to instill the virtues of being some sort of moral crusader, but those books made a big impression on me. My main take away from those readings on the likenesses of individuals like Anne Frank, Malcolm X, or Jackie Robinson is that the true mark of success isn’t defined by what assets you have, your resume, or even how long you live, but by your willingness to stand for what you believe in.
How many of us are willing to take such stands? How many of us are willing to truly stand up - to our employer, our church, our government and risk persecution, our job, and even our freedom? To many, the comforts of modern life, validation on social media, and the distractions of technology hold sway over urgent and pressing systemic problems. We are too busy being distracted and seeking comfort to be burdened by life’s inconvenient truths.
Moral courage is seemingly in short supply these days although there are glimmers of hope if you look closely enough. Ishrad Manji is the founder of the ‘Moral Courage Project’’ at the University of Southern California where she teaches students to “do the right thing in the face of four years.” Manji is a Muslim who has openly stood up for the rights of women and minorities calling for reform in her faith in her bestselling book, The Trouble with Islam Today.
A recent example of moral courage is also former NFL player Ed Cunningham quitting his lucrative job as a television football analyst because he believes that football has negative long-term health ramifications. He felt could “no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot” in promoting a game he believes in hazardous to your health. In announcing his decision Cunningham added “I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”
The point isn’t whether people like Manji and Cunningham are right. Personally, I like football and though the studies on football appear to be fairly damning, I have no idea if the science is absolute or conclusive with regard to long-term brain damage and its correlation to football. The point is that Ed Cunningham quit one of the top jobs in sports broadcasting because of his convictions. The point is that Manji stood up to her faith at the risk of being ostracized or worse and has dedicated her life’s work to furthering the movement of moral courage.
The point is also that such stands of courage are notable because they are a rarity in our times. Moral courage tends to be the exception to the rule of the day – ‘me first.’ The mantra of me first is at the root of almost every major problem we face today – disparity of income & wealth inequality, dysfunctional government run by lifelong politicians, the epidemics of addiction, crumbling infrastructure and the failing environment. And it’s not just ego and selfishness that drives these problems, but they are compounded by a modern culture of apathy, indifference, and contempt.
Said Noel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Wiesel goes on to say that “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Elie Wiesel wrote about perhaps the most glaring example of such neglect which occurred in the 1930’s & 40’s in Nazi Germany. Many protected their own self-interest - Their families, their jobs, their possessions. In doing so they contributed to one of the biggest crimes against humanity, not to mention their own countries demise and destruction. Indeed, when we put only our needs first, we neglect the moral necessities of our time.
These days there are also many who want to put their family, country or company first. While in some ways it’s natural and understandable to put you and yours first, frankly the sentiment is misguided and ultimately wrong. 'Me first' presents a self-absorbed narrative that puts blinders on the many extremely important issues of the day – poverty, failing societal health, the environment, education – things that affect us all in one way shape or form.
To right this ship, the single most important question we can ask ourselves is ‘what do you love in life more than you love yourself?’ Said another way, ‘what are you willing to die for?’ It’s a strong question, but one we all need to ask in our daily lives if we have a shot at correcting the sentiments of indifference, selfishness, and greed. Rather than responding to the issues of today with apathy, we have an ethical responsibility to stand up and ask, ‘what is going on here?’
We live in important and tumultuous times where a desperate need exists for leadership and the willingness to take stands. Even at the cost of a job, relationship, or personal gain we must put our conscious and community first. In a world of limited resources, interconnected economies, and common problems, the notion of me or even America first is archaic. As Thomas Paine said, “My country is the world. My religion is to do good.” Our ultimate task is to put the collective needs of the community first and as Paine rightly stated, “to do good.”