Saturday, March 10, 2012

Be Quiet: It Goes Without Saying

Reviewing Eyal Press's 'Beautiful Souls', Louisa Thomas opens with this story from the book:

Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander, had a simple explanation for why he broke the law to help Jewish refugees flee Austria in 1938. His daughter remembered that he would repeat the words “I could do nothing else.” It is a humble answer, as if to say that anyone would have done the same.

Except that most Swiss police officers didn’t: they turned the refugees away, as the law required. Grüninger made a choice, and it was certainly not the expected one. He did not fit the image of a resister. He was not a political activist and did not have a history of rebellion. He had a family to protect and provide for. He had taken an oath to uphold the law, and he considered himself faithful to his country. When the authorities discovered that he had falsified the documents of Jews, he became a pariah. So why did he disobey his orders?

Every person I've ever met who could be construed as heroic, every last one, has been reluctant, even refused, to discuss the heroic behavior/incident, and said something similar, often going on to say, 'You'd have done the same thing.' It's impossible for me to believe that of myself. Reading, for instance, the Congressional Medal of Honor citations, I can't imagine acting that way. And yet, that's an a priori belief, sitting on a couch with my laptop in a situation devoid of heroic possibilities. I might not stop to think, just act, feel as if there's no choice. Most heroes don't think, they just do. I might not. So I'll probably never know. Sometimes I wish I'd taken more risks, demonstrating what I'm capable of, or not; sometimes I don't.

Then there are differing notions of heroism and risk. A friend recalled to me sailing with a single friend/crew member across the Atlantic. Found the bolt securing the mast held only by friction one evening; he quickly put the out back on. They were sailing into regions where crime was possible to the extent that they hid a couple of machine weapons in a false ceiling, fortunately never used. I found that risky. Meanwhile, I'd gone to Russia and Kazakstan to adopt my younger daughters, after getting (happily) married and having a biological child. He found that far riskier than sailing across the Atlantic--he's a robustly heterosexual confirmed bachelor. He doesn't see himself as courageous, nor do I. And we were both general surgeons, confronted with tasks that are a day's work to us and awesome, even heroic to lay folk.

I discount courage in those who point out their own, just as I instantly mistrust someone who says, 'I'll be honest with you,' or 'I don't have a drinking problem.' And there's an extent to which I'll never know if I'm courageous or not. If I catch myself thinking I am, I'll not believe myself. I recall TS Eliot's Thomas a Becket, in 'Murder in the Cathedral', tempted not by fame, riches or power, but by martyrdom: is the ultimate treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason?

Beats the crap out of me...

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