When I think about courage, my first thought is of women in horrifying situations, like wartime in poverty-stricken countries, or even a lot of the maids I meet all the time in Singapore. Many of them have left their children, commonly at about age two, the age of my youngest and Beth’s son Leo, to work for their kids’ entire childhood in another country, visiting home once every two years, or sometimes choosing not to. In that time they’ll often be looked down upon, sometimes work seven days per week for years in a row, and sometimes be abused (in Singapore, working for years without a day off is not officially considered abuse). Two doors up from me lives a maid who is not allowed to speak to anyone outside the household*. A recipe for resilient mental health this is not. But these women believe this is truly the recipe for a better life for their children, and it’s a choice they bravely make.
I’m also moved by stories of people who aren’t forced to be courageous but do so from a position of comfort and power. I recently heard an anecdote about black singer Josephine Baker, who was refused service at a club in 1950s Manhattan.
Grace Kelly, who was dining at the club, rushed over to Baker (whom she had never met), took her by the arm, and stormed out with her entire party, vowing to never return (and she never did). The two women became close friends after that night.
As I mentioned, I’m in Australia this week so I’ve been able to meet up with Beth and have a real world conversation with her, which was a treat. We discovered that we were both heavily exposed to fairy tale morality as children, and I told her about my resultant mental tic growing up, whereby I would analyse how every literary character’s predicament could have been avoided by better moral choices. I was taught Sunday school by elderly women from two generations before my parents’, and read musty books of 18th century gentlemanly moral anguish in my many, many empty hours. Perhaps as a result of this, I have a strong latent desire to be a hero, fighting injustice on behalf of the powerless. I’ve indulged in many fantasies of overcoming my inhibitions and indignantly fighting back, like Grace Kelly does in the story above. Sadly, most of my heroism has taken place only in my mind.
This week I did have a chance to play the hero for a few minutes at least. We were driving along and I noticed the oncoming car’s driver was peering at something on the pavement, but intending to drive on by. Realising what the something was, I told Richard to pull over right away. On the footpath an old lady was lying on her side, with her shopping next to her. It is ridiculous how ambiguous this situation can seem (perhaps she’s just having a nap!) and if it weren’t for my hero impulse I might have driven by too. But indeed she had fallen down and we were able to help her back to her home for a happy ending.
Her neighbour (also a helpful type who came over to see what had happened when we got her home) commended us on being good Samaritans and suggested we “buy a lottery ticket”. I thought this was a fairly odd thing to suggest and she seemed slightly embarrassed after saying it, but I realised that we have no real social form or ritual in our society for responding to altruistic acts. She felt like something should be suggested to commemorate the occasion and that is what she came up with.
I am very amused and a little embarrassed to recall the simplistic morality I embraced so earnestly as a child. On the other hand, I still sincerely hope that I will have more opportunities to be heroic in small or large ways in my life. I am extremely grateful that I haven’t needed to show the kind of courage born of desperation I described above. If any readers from the far flung corners of the world would like to help with my completely non-courageous efforts to help some courageous people, please chip in. And if your own courageous efforts are dedicated elsewhere right now, please share your stories of heroic acts large or small below!
*My German next-door neighbour is a minor hero in this tale, smuggling top-up cards across the fence so that the maid is able to call her family.