Chrissy (not her real name), a native New Yorker, always thought courage was about not going along with the crowd, especially when the crowd was doing something you didn’t believe in. Courage, she thought, 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.
Chrissy was taking a college-level history class on the events leading up to World War II. 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?’
I responded flippantly that I would have left with all the other intelligent people and moved to America. Several other people agreed with me and we concurred that we never could 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.
“One student became 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 didn’t 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!’
“Looking back, my answer would probably still be the same. Austria, and living in Austria, meant nothing to me. As people started showing signs of supporting the Nazis, I would probably have left, long before more serious choices arose. It was not my home and ultimately, I didn’t belong there. I was just passing through.
“But his response 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 a religion because there was someone I considered fanatical in the church stating things I couldn’t agree with.
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.
“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.”
It’s been said that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent.” So, the next time a group you’re a part of strays from what you believe in, what will you do?
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- 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?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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