With the spring of 1666 came the second wave of the Black Death to the English village of Eyam. A few years before, the first onslaught of bubonic plague had scattered residents about the countryside in a frantic effort to escape. But this time, the village rector spoke up. William Mompesson told his faithful flock that they should not flee, lest they infect others. “Stay in Eyam,” he pleaded, “to save the rest of Derbyshire.”
Rector Mompesson must have been a persuasive man, for the townspeople heeded his request. A circle of stones was laid around the town, and food was left at the perimeter by outsiders anxious to avoid contact.
Months went by, and the frightful disease took its toll. By the time the scourge had passed, 259 of the 350 faithful villagers were dead, including Rector Mompesson’s wife. But the plague had not spread; Derbyshire was saved.
In February of 1943, the Allied transport Dorchester was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. As the ship went down, four chaplains—one Catholic, one Jewish, and two Protestant—stood on deck passing out life belts. When there were no more, they gave away their own. The four chaplains were last seen standing arm-in-arm, praying.
It looks like a typical professor’s office—windowless, cluttered with books and papers. But its occupant, John A. Green, a Brigham Young University professor of French, is anything but typical. In 1981, at a relatively young age, he suffered a stroke that wiped out his memory of both French and English and left him largely paralyzed. Unable to teach, he was placed on disability leave. It was assumed he would never return to university life.
But John Green is an extraordinary man. Painstakingly, he began the process of relearning to read, to walk, and to talk. Within months, he was back in his office, going over his notes, first reviewing, then resuming, his research.
In the past few years, Brother Green has completed several carefully researched volumes on French writer Marcel Schwob. Two of the volumes, part of a planned set of seven, are in print already.
Perhaps most amazing of all, Professor Green has meticulously typed every letter of every word of these books with one finger of his left hand. Every weekday, from eight to five, he works quietly in his office, completing the task he has given himself—a task for which he receives no compensation beyond the disability pay he would still receive if he chose to relax at home.
The Mark of Courage
Courage is the common element in these three moving reports—courage to make hard decisions and do the right thing when doing something else would be safer, more self-indulgent, or just plain easier.
We all face challenges to our courage and commitment at times. These challenges can be difficult tests. President Thomas S. Monson, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, said at the October 1986 general conference:
“Of course we will face fear, experience ridicule, and meet opposition. Let us have the courage to defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle. Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval. Courage becomes a living and an attractive virtue when it is regarded not only as a willingness to die manfully, but as the determination to live decently. A moral coward is one who is afraid to do what he thinks is right because others will disapprove or laugh. Remember that all men have their fears, but those who face their fears with dignity have courage as well.” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 41.)
The courage spoken of here is not necessarily the physical bravery shown by soldiers or rescue teams who risk their own safety to protect others, or by mountain climbers who scale sheer walls by jamming fingers into crevices, although no one would deny that such actions require tremendous bravery.
The courage called for in the gospel is usually less visible, and it seldom makes news. It’s an unshakable commitment to live by correct principles as opposed to “going along,” to live the truth with integrity and reject anything less. This kind of commitment is resolute, bold, and confident, while at the same time quiet, unassuming, and humble.
Often such courage is observed as much in what isn’t done as in what is. No medals are given, for example, for not overstating insurance losses or for not exaggerating tax deductions. Nonetheless, overcoming the lure of these or other easy but fraudulent gains requires courage.
How often we’re tempted just to “go along”! A neighbor comes to our door and asks us to sign a petition. We may know little about the proposal, and may even disagree, but we want to be cooperative, and so we sign, sometimes against our better judgment.
George Washington University professor Jerry B. Harvey labels such behavior “the Abilene Paradox” because of an experience in his family. The Harvey family once took a 53-mile drive in an automobile with no air conditioning on a 104-degree Texas day to eat in a particular cafe. The excursion did not turn out well, and in the ensuing argument, it became clear that not one family member had really wanted to go, but that each person thought everyone else did! They all just went along.
A similar phenomenon is identifiable in group behavior when people tacitly agree not to bring up unsettling facts. The process is called “group-think,” and it discourages challenging commonly held group assumptions. Like the Abilene Paradox, group-think encourages going along. Both of these phenomena are characterized by situations in which any member could take the responsibility to turn the group around, but no one finds the courage to do so.
A person of valor stands out from the crowd. Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII, was asked to sign his name to the Act of Succession, a document that implied that King Henry was head of the Church of England—a position with which More disagreed. Sir Thomas refused to sign, was imprisoned, and was accused of treason. In the play A Man for All Seasons, which is based on More’s life, officials try to convince More to go along with them and sign the document.
Norfolk says, “Can’t you just do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?”
Sir Thomas replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?” (Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, New York: Vintage Books, 1960, p. 77.)
Altering the Status Quo
Erroll Bennett, now a bishop in his native Tahiti, is a Latter-day Saint whose courage and commitment made a difference. At twenty-seven, Erroll was the top soccer player in Tahiti when he was introduced to the LDS Church and was baptized, despite considerable opposition from family and sports officials.
Soccer is Tahiti’s biggest sport, and when Erroll was baptized all soccer games in the country were played on Sunday. Because of the Sunday play, Brother Bennett knew that deciding to join the Church and spend his Sundays in Church activities would spell the end of his soccer career, which was then at its height. The day after his baptism, a Sunday, Brother Bennett did not play, and he was prepared to resign his position during the coming week.
A few days later, when it was clear that Erroll Bennett meant to stand by his commitment, the league met and concluded that the long tradition of playing soccer games on Sundays was a bad idea after all. All twelve top clubs agreed to move their games to weeknights. (See Ensign, Oct. 1982, pp. 14–20.)
In a world where some celebrity heroes appear perversely devoid of moral conviction, people like Erroll Bennett make my day! Since one of the greatest obligations of parents and teachers is to instill in youth the courage to live the truth and withstand evil, courageous role models are necessary. I remember well the disappointment on the face of my son Matthew, then twelve, when he heard of drug charges against some of his football heroes. How much I would like him to hear about more people like Erroll Bennett!
In the past, we’ve taught our young people the valuable stories of Latter-day Saints who had courage to refuse alcohol or cigarettes or drugs in peer-pressure situations. These are important lessons, but we must also teach—and show by example—how to stand for the fight in less obvious situations.
Ours is an age when ethical and legal gray areas abound. Many matters are not easily sorted into black and white. But contrast the way some people conduct their affairs with the courageous example of Spencer W. Kimball when he left Thatcher, Arizona, upon his call to the Council of the Twelve. Elder Kimball sought out people with whom he had had business, Church, or personal relationships and asked them if they had any concerns about his past dealings with them. If any felt he had not been fair with them, he offered to make things right in their eyes without argument. (Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr., Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1977, pp. 197–98.)
The world often subtly lures us into following the crowd. But daily living also provides us numerous opportunities for courageous decision-making. Consider how the following everyday situations may call for moral courage:
—When we sell a used car, do we fail to point out its problems, emphasizing only its strengths? (When we look at a used car we want to buy, does our viewpoint change?)
—Do we make illegal copies of copyrighted video and audio tapes, computer games and software, or sheet music? (Would we feel differently about the ease of copying if we were the authors of such royalty-producing material?)
—Do we think of automobile radar detectors as harmless toys, or as unfortunate inventions that allow people to get away with breaking the law? (Would a drinking driver be justified in inventing a gadget that made him appear sober?)
—Do we reuse postage stamps that somehow missed being postmarked, thereby asking the postal service (or, more accurately, other stamp purchasers or taxpayers) to deliver our letter for free? (Would we join up with a gang who plotted to rob our own government of more than $50 million? In the United States, this is the estimated amount “stolen” from the postal service in a recent year by those who reused stamps.)
—On a more private level, how much energy do we expend holding on to our sins? Our prideful behavior? Our harmful prejudices and unrighteous judgments?
—How closely does our behavior, public and private, follow Christlike standards of living taught by the gospel? How does our treatment of family members measure up? Our level of service to others? Our Sabbath observance?
The Key: Enduring Commitment
These and numerous other everyday issues require our best thought and our enduring commitment to gospel principles. It seems likely that our growth as courageous people doesn’t depend so much on conjecturing about major decisions we will probably never be called on to make as it does on our responses to routine daily questions. It isn’t “How would I perform if …” so much as “How will I perform today?” The test isn’t likely to be: “Would I give up my life belt?” It is more likely to be: “Will I treat the neighbor who damaged my property like the brother—and son of our Heavenly Father—that he really is?”
Courageous decision-making won’t always be easy; it wasn’t meant to be. As President Monson said:
“Life’s journey is not traveled on a freeway devoid of obstacles, pitfalls, and snares. Rather, it is a pathway marked by forks and turnings. Decisions are constantly before us. To make them wisely, courage is needed: the courage to say no, the courage to say yes. Decisions do determine destiny.” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 40.)
Whether we are called on to give our lives for a cause, as did so many of the people of Eyam, or to give our best efforts daily in the face of difficulty, as does John Green, we determine our destiny. As we find the strength to defy group-think mentality, when necessary, and speak up against the consensus, we determine our destiny. When we stand for principle, as did Erroll Bennett and the newly called Elder Spencer W. Kimball, we determine our destiny. Living the gospel courageously, in these and similar ways, will make us better people and more effective servants of the Lord, now and in the life to come.