Courage is something I think about often and have fantasized about it a lot. Whether simply speaking my mind, taking a risky decision, confronting a challenging situation or dealing with a peer pressure. I have noticed that I am always drawn to the real life people or fictitious characters who display the unexpected and practical courage against all odds. Could it be that I am so attracted to selfless acts of courage because deep inside I always doubt my own “hypothetical” choices?!
When I was a little girl watching many WWII movies, I dreamed about being a courageous nurse who is pulling wounded soldiers of the battle field. When I became very religious, I wanted to be always ready to become a witness for my faith to the point of martyrdom if I found myself in a place hostile to my religious convictions. When I joined a faith-based organization as a volunteer, I always admired, even envied, others who would start a pioneering work in the most extreme and dangerous circumstances like conflict zones or in countries with severe restrictions of political, religious and economic freedoms.
But with time I realized that the real test of courage is in the small things and the motivation to be courageous cannot be framed with these romantic, grandiose notions of my childhood fantasies. In the fantasies we always have certain freedom to choose our actions and can expect certain rewards like the admiration of people and future generations. But the experience and intuition tells me that the real courage can feel like no choice at all and the future rewards are certainly overrated.
July 4 is probably best known worldwide as the Independence Day in the USA. In Latvia this date is also remembered on a national level but for a very different reason. It is Commemoration Day of Genocide against the Jews. On July 4, 1941, shortly after the occupation by the USSR ended and the occupation by Nazi Germany began, Riga’s main Jewish synagogue was destroyed and burned. It effectively marked the beginning of the Holocaust in Latvia in which 65,000 – 70,000 Latvian citizens of Jewish ethnicity were killed. In fact, five of six synagogues in the capital city were completely destroyed that day (and until the present there is only one synagogue left in Riga). Also, there are accounts that there were people burned alive inside the Riga Great Choral synagogue, but the historical data has been inconclusive as to how many.
Last week I attended a lecture/presentation about some of the brave rescuers who saved Jews in Latvia during those horrifying years of the Nazi German occupation. In a sense these people seemed very ordinary on the outside and to their neighbors, but absolutely extraordinary to the people they sheltered, saved and tried to help. Sometimes unsuccessfully. These stories were truly inspiring but it also constantly reminded of the sad reality that there were not so many of them. These brave man and women had chosen the most difficult and often judged, misunderstood path. Still, they chose to be available…
During the Q&A session after the presentation, the difficult conundrum of courage was expressed with a straightforward question – what motivated people, who lived under such evil totalitarian and genocidal regime like the Nazi occupation, to show this extraordinary courage? To not conform to the “silent” and/or complying majority and to save their fellow citizens from a certain death. (Note: As a follower of Jesus Christ, I wish there would have been a more obvious answer that the person’s religious convictions and commitments made all the difference. The truth was much more ambiguous even though there were some clear examples when the rescuers were people of faith.)
This public event was organized by Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum in Riga which I highly recommend to visit. One of their future projects is House of Courage with this manifest: ” Dock worker Žanis Lipke under impossible circumstances saved people who were not considered people by the authorities and neighbours under German occupation. That required courage and friends. Being brave isn’t easy, being the minority isn’t easy. Hating and suspecting any otherness is easier, it takes no effort. But we want to live in a country where your fellow men and women are considered people.”
The German/American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich is famous for his thesis of “courage to be”. I believe that being brave expands it to “courage to be available”.