As we come closer to our uniquely American tradition of Independence Day on the 4th of July, I am reminded of what true courage means. I grew up in a very non-politically correct time; no one batted an eye at ethnic jokes, no one worried about offending anyone, no one ever disrespected the flag, and so on. I’m not saying that those were perfect times; I’m just saying that that is the time in which I grew up. My parents taught me right from wrong, who set my values and ethics, and it was them, not the government, who told me what I should and shouldn’t do.
For example, I came home from school one day with a joke involving a Polish man that I thought was hilarious. I told it to my parents, and neither of them laughed or smiled. My mother said, “Did you know that your Uncle So-and-So was Polish and lost all his family during WWII?”
I had always loved history, and in school when I learned about Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, I wept. When I heard about my uncle, I immediately remembered that joke and realized at that moment that nothing about it was funny. I knew then that there are some things you just don’t joke about; real live people are involved, and they matter.
My family taught me all the values and beliefs that I still hold dear to this day.
- Standing up for the right, even when no one else will stand with us
- Showing love each day, even if someone we love hurts us
- Speaking out about a wrong that must be made right
- Going to sit with the new kid at lunch
- Admitting our faults and working to change them to positives
- Being a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves
- Choosing to do the right thing, not the popular thing
- Giving the other guy the benefit of the doubt
- Waving or saying ‘hello’ to a homeless person, even if we have nothing else to give them
- Forgiving ourselves for being human and imperfect
- Standing up and putting our right hand over our heart when during the Pledge of Allegiance, or when the National Anthem is sung
- Forgiving those who offend us (it’s not easy, but it is doable)
Courage isn’t always about charging into battle without regard for our own lives. It’s often just small but significant actions that speak volumes about the person who stood by his or her convictions. It was my parents who made sure that I understood that actions have consequences.
One day in high school they were serving slices of pizza, which in itself was pretty terrific.When I got my slice, I saw that it was practically raw. Being the hothead that I was then, I made a huge and foolish deal about it, and, long story short, I told off the kitchen staff about the poor quality of their food and demanded a “good” slice. It caused a minor uproar, and of course the kitchen staff were upset and talked loudly down the line about getting this girl her “special slice.” I remember feeling a small curl of unease in my stomach, and I don’t remember even eating the slice of pizza.
It turned out that one of the lunch ladies was the mother of one of mom’s friends, so the story of my foolishness was home that day before I was. My parents sat me down and explained to me what I had done. It was my dad who said, “Did you ever think that, in getting lunch ready for all you kids, that one tray of food might not have been cooked enough and that your raw slice wasn’t personal? Did you ever think to show the raw slice to one of the ladies and ask politely for another one?” I was dumbstruck, and all at once I saw the rude and selfish thing I’d done, and for what? Looking good for five minutes to the kids at my table at lunch? I was mortified that I had hurt someone’s feelings, and also knew that these poor ladies never got much respect or thanks for being there each day to feed us.
I don’t remember now if I wrote a letter or went to the kitchen staff face-to-face to apologize for my behavior; I only remember how I felt when I realized what I’d done and that I had hurt people unnecessarily.
What I do remember from that day was how my parents gently but firmly demanded courage from me so that I could make a wrong right. It is because of their courage that I became courageous myself. It was in that moment in time that I realized what courage really is–it’s not as easy as you’d think, but it isn’t as hard as you’d think, either.
Courage is like a muscle; use it or lose it. And we are so much less when we don’t use it!