When we think about courage we are likely to imagine a big noble action: the athlete who performs a spectacular jump/dive/Hail Mary pass; the subordinate who stands up to the bad boss; the soldier who sacrifices their own safety for their platoon. Movies love this kind of courage, and it is often front-page news in the tabloids.
But, for most of us, courage is not usually a big event. It comes in small, incremental decisions. Sometimes, the decision doesn’t happen at a dramatic moment, either. It creeps up on you as you realize that one of your basic values is being undermined or overlooked. At some point, you either go along with changes you don’t like, or you say “This far and no further.”
I am thinking about courage today because I have just read a brilliant article by Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. In History Will Judge The Complicit, Applebaum gives us a fascinating historical analysis of people who did and did not go along with political regimes that were abhorrent. She talks about what individuals chose to do, why they made those choices, and the eventual outcomes.
It is a long article, but I encourage you to read it because it takes cold, hard look at good people making difficult adjustments. In a very matter-of-fact way, Applebaum compares some significant responses to powerful political events in the past to some of the responses to Donald Trump that we see today in America’s Republican party.
While her focus is on a particular set of current events, the parallels she draws can be applied to any of us, in any situation, in any country. When we start to have doubts, we can push those thoughts aside or we can face them. When we see that a line has been crossed, we can go along to get along or we can step back.
None of the choices described in the article are easy to make. They involve not only morality and values but also, more practically, families and jobs. They are, in addition, related to our social circles and our sphere of influence. Can we change the group from within or are we deluding ourselves if we think so? Will we be effective as a whistleblower or simply derided as a malcontent?
As I read this article I was struck by the respect that Applebaum shows even to those whose choices she does not admire. She recognizes that the choices are difficult and that an eventual shift in one direction or the other may come down to the first, very small, step.