Do you ever wonder what you would do if you were confronted with a life-or-death decision? I’m not talking about whether to buy natural peanut butter or the kind full of chemicals, and I’m not referring to the guilt you feel when the Salvation Army sets up its bell-ringers long before the Thanksgiving dishes have been done.
What I am talking about is “saying no, breaking ranks, and heeding the voice of conscience in dark times.” This is the subtitle of a new book written by Eyal Press, titled “Beautiful Souls.” In the book, Press tells the stories of ordinary people who, finding themselves confronted with seemingly impossible situations, did the right thing, even though they knew they might be punished or shunned for their actions.
The term “beautiful souls” may be misleading. It sounds lovely, a phrase everyone would love to be connected with. But it’s not what you may think. It is, instead, a European term for what we call, derisively, “bleeding hearts.” Ah, some of you might be thinking. I don’t want to be known as one of them.
Just the other day, while doing a crossword puzzle, my husband asked, “Is there a song from ‘Hair’ called ‘Easy to be Hard’?” Wow, did that take me back. After answering that yes, there certainly is a song by that name, its verses flooded my mind. “How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel? Easy to be hard, easy to be cold.”
It’s the next verse, though, where things get interesting. “Especially people who care about strangers, who care about evil and social injustice. Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needing friend? I need a friend.”
Okay, so it’s not very subtle. But it reminds me of a song I wrote years ago, when I started dating a musician (now my husband) who wrote his own songs. (I only wrote two.) My song had different words, but a similar theme. Here’s a sample: “I need a fair weather friend, some folks to come around when trouble ends. To walk out in the sun with, to have a little fun with, yes, I need a fair weather friend; we all need some fair weather friends.”
“Fair weather friends” usually describes people who only want to be with you when things are going well, who disappear into the woodwork when it becomes obvious you need help – whether hauling boxes, paying the rent, or getting some respite from childcare. Of course it’s best to have the kind of true blue friends who do both, people who by with you through good times and bad. I was just feeling, at the time I wrote it, that it was a lot easier to ask for help than it was to ask for ordinary (yet so necessary) friendship.
Having read several reviews of “Beautiful Souls” but not yet the book, I’ve been thinking hard about kindness, conscience, bravery, and ignorance. One person featured in the book is Paul Gruninger, a Swiss police commander who broke the law to help Jewish refugees flee Austria in 1938. A seemingly ordinary man, he could only explain his action as “I could do nothing else.” Instead of being regarded as a hero, a prod to the conscience of a supposedly neutral nation, he was fired and became a pariah, putting his own family at risk.
We all like to think we would be like him, but we really can’t know until circumstances present themselves. When I was being threatened nightly by my violent husband, I’m sure my friends wrung their hands and wondered what they could do. It was my old friends out East who ordered the plane tickets for me and my two children to flee over 1700 miles to safety. When that turned out to be only a temporary fix, my Colorado friends provided me with a place to hide, and helped furnish the apartment I finally rented.
As for a friend or family member who proved to be a beautiful soul, what I come up with is my late father. Our home had huge picture windows in the living and dining rooms, the better for him to spy on the neighbors. That’s what I thought, in my judgmental teenage way. The fact is, as soon as he noticed the neighbor lady trying to take an air conditioner from her car, or her husband working on a lawnmower that refused to start, Dad would be out the door, and then I would become the watcher, witnessing him taking the AC and install it, or hunkering down with the lawnmower, sharing a smile with Mr. Studeny as the thing roared back to life.
That made my dad a good person, a superlative neighbor, but he never, to my knowledge, risked his life or reputation to do “the right thing.” Given the right opportunity, I don’t doubt he would have.
There are heroes among us. Remember the Iowa Supreme Court justices – all seven of them – who risked their jobs by standing up for same-sex marriage? The three facing re-election, including the Chief Justice, were subsequently voted out. Anybody willing to speak truth to power like that deserves our respect. Some of my best friends are gay, and I can’t imagine robbing them of a simple human privilege like that. In Paul Gruninger’s case, his action may have resulted because he looked the suffering Jews in the eye, seeing them as real people, not a problem to be solved from a safe distance.
It’s important to know what your values are, and also to recognize, to really see, people in need. After that, it’s simple, though not easy. Just act on your conscience, no matter the risk. Then you, too, will prove yourself a beautiful soul.