Last night I watched an old episode of Oprah on YouTube. It was a follow-up on a story she had done some time ago about a 6-year-old boy who had been horribly abused (I never saw the original story, but there was enough material from the original that it was absolutely clear). Among other things, the boy had been locked in a bathroom closet, chained and starved, ignored and treated horribly. At some point his 14-year-old step-sister ran away from home and when she was picked up by police she told them about the little boy being abused at home. Police sent a social worker to the home- who found no evidence of abuse (I won’t even touch on this right now)- but the original officer who had picked up the runaway found her story too honest and too compelling to simply ignore. He figured out a way to assess the boy for himself, and saw glaring evidence of abuse. He interviewed the boy and heard such a catalog of horrors that the parents (a biological father and a step-mother) were promptly arrested and tried for their crimes.
The story was publicized, and the officer received many letters commending him as a hero. When asked about his actions that day, he said something along the lines of ‘I may never accomplish another thing in my life. But at the end of my days I will know I accomplished this.’
That pretty much gave me chills.
Not only because he quite literally saved that boy’s life. But because when his pivotal moment came, he stood up and did the right thing.
I don’t know how many people when faced with an ambiguous situation choose to sit down and stay silent. Let someone else take care of it. Cower in the face of making the first move. In this case a trained social worker evaluated the situation and wrote an official report: nothing to worry about. But this officer’s gut told him different. He was worried and a child’s life hung on his decision. Be uncomfortable and possibly embarrassed, or go with the flow and don’t make waves? How many people would choose complacency over action? This man didn’t choose silence. He chose to do the right thing, and that’s what made him a hero. And for the rest of his life, he will know that when his moment came, he showed his true character. HERO.
A few days ago we were involved in a situation involving someone who had committed crimes against children. I won’t disclose details of the particular situation because they aren’t important, but what happened afterward was both perplexing and enlightening. A group of parents “decided” (and I put this word in quotes very deliberately- I will explain why in a second) that it was okay for their children to be around this man as long as another adult was present. First off, you can be darn sure that if I KNEW someone had offended against children he wouldn’t be within the vicinity of any of my kids, or any kids I had the power to protect- not with another adult present, not with me present. All it takes is the blink of an eye for one oops moment (especially in a group setting) and someone has come to irrevocable harm. And to what end? So you can show what an enlightened person you are that you don’t hold someone’s past against them? Uh, no thanks. I will take a pass on that particular lack of judgement. That person has given up the right to not be judged in that specific way. Too bad, so sad. Not on the backs of my kids, though. Shouldn’t be on the backs of any kids…
So why do I say the parents “decided”, in quotes? Because I don’t truly believe that most of those parents made a decision. I believe that in groups, people are often shamed into capitulating to things against their better judgement. If someone in leadership says here’s what we’re gonna do… Or this thing is okay… Many many people are too hesitant to say Oh, No. That most decidedly is Not Okay. So in the above scenario some person (I will hold back from extemporaizing on what I think of such a person’s character…) says publically that the offender is going to get a chance, and everyone can show how welcoming and embracing or whatever whatever they are by “accepting” this person. If someone has reservations, they feel like a big jerk to say anything, so they are shamed in to silence. And then it is presented as a group decision that someone who has harmed children is now to be included, and let’s all hold hands and group hug.
Equally often, people don’t think at all. they see what is, and simply take it for granted that Someone (ah, the great all-knowing, all-wise Someone, who we can trust so we don’t have to bother…) has thought about this and considered all angles and made the decision for us. After all, this thing is happening, so it must be right, yes? So we are content to accept the status quo, and because it seems to make sense, or usually because it just plain easier to go along or to not have to think for ourselves, we let things roll. So they roll.
In the above scenario, I got in touch with the person in charge. I said both (I’m paraphrasing) “What are you thinking?” and “Are you crazy?” The answers I got were unsatisfying, and someone asked me why I bothered. Why was I getting upset over something I couldn’t change? And why was I poking my nose where it didn’t belong?
And my answer was a variation of what that officer said, even though I hadn’t heard it at the time. Because I try to make it my habit to react in every moment in ways where if I have to look back I will know- that even if I never accomplish another thing in my life, at least I can look back on each pivotal moment and know that in that moment, I acted in a way that was right and correct. At the end of the day, you never know what action you take will make you a hero to someone, so be prepared.
And don’t be afraid to stand up.