For over a decade, I’ve taught moral courage at universities across America. Moral courage means doing the right thing in the face of fear. As idealistic as that sounds, here’s the good news: You don’t have to be a Martin Luther King Jr., a Mahatma Gandhi, or a Malala Yousafzai to exhibit moral courage. It starts by remembering something simple: that you’ve got the power to set an example for others around you, particularly kids.
Which brings me to the coronavirus. Much of the fear swirling around it is legitimate. Yet even still, opportunities abound to develop and demonstrate moral courage during this trying time. To get there, ask yourself this question: As I try to keep myself and my community safe, am I sometimes caving to fears that make me do the wrong thing?
It’s not always easy to take the high road.
Let me illustrate. Last week, I spoke with my friend, Emma, who groaned that she’d “messed up.” That morning, Emma had gone shopping for a month’s supply of groceries. She proceeded to bag them herself, but the cashier said, “Let me do it. We’ve developed a system that’s fast.” The cashier then asked Emma to take a few steps back for the sake of social distancing, staying about six feet away from others to avoid infecting and getting infected.
“No problem,” Emma replied. Except that the woman behind her didn’t hear the conversation and decided that there was a problem. She decided Emma must be a diva for making the cashier work extra hard, holding up the checkout line in the process. The woman launched into a diatribe about entitlement, punctuating it by pointing to Emma’s “hip and obviously expensive jacket.”
“You don’t know me,” Emma snapped to her accuser. “You don’t know about my childhood. I didn’t grow up with money!” Emma then locked eyes with the little boy who was holding the accuser’s hand. He appeared shocked. Hot with anger and flush with shame, Emma escalated the conflict with some choice curses.
Often times, we can do better.
As she relayed the story to me, she choked up. I felt her frustration. How unnecessary to be so breezily judged at a time when we’re all supposed to be pulling together. There was no excuse. None. Nada.
And yet. Did Emma really have to reinforce her accuser’s us-against-them attitude? Oh, I know that she was only defending herself. Trouble is, becoming defensive often leads to an unsatisfying result. Emma hadn’t emerged from the argument feeling any better; hours later, on the phone with me, she couldn’t hold back her tears.
“I’m over that witch,” Emma clarified. “But I can’t stop thinking about the kid. What’s he supposed to make of us so-called adults? What kind of example did we, did I, give him?” Asking this question is a brilliant start to building moral courage and our capacity to do the right thing in the face of fear.
If you feel yourself getting defensive, take a pause.
Social science repeatedly tells us that what humans fear most is being judged. Because we’re social creatures who crave belonging, a harsh opinion about us can come off as a lethal threat. That’s the primitive part of our brain playing a trick to protect us from death. But in reality, Emma wasn’t experiencing mortal danger. She was experiencing massive discomfort. However massive, though, it was only discomfort. And that’s why she didn’t have to become defensive in order to defend herself.
When you’re uncomfortable—fighting embarrassment as opposed to fighting a murderer—it’s worth taking a breath (or three). In so doing, you slow the blood that’s rushing through your body. You’re overriding the primitive part of your brain to reach the more evolved region of it. Now you’re tapping into constructive emotions, those that turn confrontation into cooperation.
That’s how Emma, confronted by an aggressor, could’ve revealed what the cashier had asked her to do. She didn’t owe the aggressor any further explanation, not about her coat and certainly not about her childhood! As for the boy? He would’ve witnessed how to bag self-respect in the face of a bully.
In times of anxiety and discomfort, let’s find our moral courage.
We can expect more situations like this at a time of collective anxiety. So I’m compelled to offer one last piece of guidance. Let’s be proactive in turning the tables on fear. Instead of hoping that more of us will have moral courage when it’s needed, let’s use this pandemic to create opportunities to grow the moral-courage muscle.
Here’s an example: As you plan your grocery runs, think about elderly neighbors for whom you could pick up some staple items. How about sending your kids to knock on their doors? They don’t have to go inside; they can wait out front as the neighbors write their list.
The other day, I wanted to thank my apartment building’s essential staff. So I brewed them chai tea. One by one, they left their empty cups just outside my door, a testament to the fact that we can draw social solidarity out of social distance.
And this is a great life lesson to be teaching our kids, especially when school’s closed.