A couple of weeks ago I had a discussion with one of my classmates, who complimented me on “being brave.” When I inquired what exactly she meant, she said that she admired how I was always ready to speak up, even in front of our professors, how I didn’t care whether I was alone with my opinion and stood by it, and how more often that not I said was everyone around me was thinking but didn’t have the guts to say out loud.
Okay, I won’t lie to you - I was pleased. As most human beings, I heart compliments. And it made me happy, especially because I often suspect that most of my classmates secretly think that I’m nuts as a fruitcake.
But it also made me feel a little ashamed. You see, it wasn’t the first time when someone commented positively on my bold candor, or the willingness to stand up for the underdog. And I always feel pleased first and ashamed second.
Ashamed, because I have never been in a situation when speaking up would mean any serious danger to myself or my loved ones. It’s easy to be brave when one is privileged enough to live in a safe environment, where there are no life-threatening consequences for one’s actions.
I have been pondering this idea for a while, because February being the Black History Month always reminds me of people who were brave enough to do the right thing, even though they faced violence, imprisonment, even death. Every time when the choir in our church rehearses the beautiful song about Harriet Tubman, I have tears in my eyes and I think: Now THIS is a woman who took up the opportunity to show the whole world what ‘brave’ was!
Seriously, how does mouthing off to one’s professors ever compare!?
Or consider a different example: I just finished a novel titled Jacob’s Oath. It was a story set in the post-Holocaust era in Germany, so you can probably imagine the message. One of the main characters, a young Jewish woman, survives the war by hiding in Berlin with the help of numerous German families. Yes, even in the midst of Hitler’s Germany there were German citizens who were willing to protect Jewish people, risking all kinds of horrible consequences. Thinking about the novel made me realize that I had a shining example in my own family: During the WWII. my great-grandmother Magdalena, bless her soul, kept bringing food and supplies to her Jewish friends until their transport to Teresienstadt. When her husband, who sympathized with the Jewish family but was by nature more cautious, tried to discourage her from making another trip, her only response was: “Josef, we can’t leave those people without help.” And that was it – conversation over. Mind you, we are talking about a time when fraternizing with the undesirables meant the death penalty, often for the WHOLE FAMILY (in fact, sometimes for the whole block, or even whole street, especially after the assassination of Heydrich).
Now, ladies and gentlemen, my great-grandmother deserved to be called brave, no question asked!
What would I do if I ever found myself in a situation where I had the opportunity to show how far I was willing to go in protecting the innocent or saving the oppressed? I honestly don’t know. Of course I like to believe that I would be a hero and did something incredible J According to social psychology, we all tend to believe that we are better than we really are. But I’m only too aware that I like very much to be alive (and am afraid pf physical pain). So at this point it’s really hard to guess.
The way I see it, until publishing this blog means at least one broken window in my apartment, it’s people like Harriet Tubman or great-grandmother Magdalena who were brave. I’m just a spoiled brat.