Chrissy always thought courage was about not going along with the crowd, especially when the crowd was doing something you didn't believe in. To her, growing up in New York, courage meant having the strength to walk away and follow your own compass. Until that is, she spent some time studying in Austria. That's when she realized real courage might mean something very different. It might mean choosing to stay.
She was taking a college-level history class on the events leading up to World War II. And as she describes it, "After class one day, I was sitting with some of the students in a café having a drink. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the question, 'What would you have done if you had lived in Austria right before the war?' And I responded rather flippantly that I would have left with all the other intelligent people and moved to America. And, several other people agreed with me, and we concurred that we could never have put up with the Nazi incursion and hatred going on and that we probably would have left long before the war started. Everyone except one, that is.
"One student got really angry. He shouted: 'You traitors! You idiots! It's people like you who made the atrocities possible. When Hitler was rising to power, at least half of the population did not agree with him. If they had stayed, if they had fought for what they believed in, the country would never have been hijacked and used for such evil. Shame on you!'
Chrissy said, "Looking back, my answer would probably still be the same. Austria and living in Europe meant nothing to me. As people started showing signs of supporting the Nazis, I would probably have left. It wasn't my home, and I didn't ultimately belong there. I was just passing through.
"But his response," she said, "forever changed me. Until then, I prided myself on only belonging to groups I could be proud of—groups that I completely agreed with and felt wholeheartedly that I could support. Whenever someone joined the group with an agenda I didn't support, I bailed. I even left religion because there was someone I considered fanatical in the church stating things I couldn't agree with. Well, later, that same church had attendance problems, trouble raising money to support its basic needs, and general problems stemming from lack of morale. I had convinced myself that I was the more ethical and devout person because I refused to budge on what I believed in.
Instead, I was a coward following the path of least resistance. Had I stayed, had I voiced my opinion, perhaps others would have felt comfortable doing the same and coming to an agreement as to what they stood for. Unlike living in Austria, the church did mean something to me, and I should have stood up for what I believed in.
She went on to tell me, "In raising my children, I want them to think carefully about who they are and what they believe in. When a rotten apple joins the bin, I want them to thoughtfully consider the option to stay and fight and not decide solely between going with the flow or leaving."
You know, it's been said that "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent." And that's a lesson we need to teach our kids before they're gone, or they've developed the habit to think their only choices are to capitulate or to leave. Staying to fight for change is courageous option kids need to be taught to consider. And sharing this story and having a conversation about it is your first step to doing that.
Here are some questions to get you started in that discussion:
What would you have done if you lived in Austria before World War II? Would you have stayed or left?
What do you think of the saying, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent"? When has that ever happened before? When could it happen again?
When do you think it's appropriate to stay and fight for what you believe in?
In what kind of situation would it be appropriate to leave instead?
Okay, in the next lesson, I'll share a 500-year-old strategy to help build courage in kids or adults.