Silent Moral Courage-Olympic Flashbacks

When thinking about leading it’s not uncommon to think about moral courage. Moral courage is the ability to do the “right” or “moral” thing even when that can cost you significantly. You may need to push back on policies or movements that are popular, supported by authority figures, or encoded in law. It will most likely require you to be a lonely voice that makes those engaged in the immoral and wrong-headed action uncomfortable and sometimes angry. Exhibiting moral courage requires humility. A leader that exercises moral courage isn’t simply pushing their opinions around about what they believe is right, they’re speaking the truth even when doing so might make them uncomfortable. Think of the white leaders during the time of the Jim Crowe south who benefitted from the system yet spoke out against it because, in the end, they knew that to do so was what mattered for justice to prevail.

An example of moral courage that has stayed with me for some time has to do with an Australian man named Peter Norman. Peter Norman isn’t a name most people recognize. In fact, when someone thinks of moral courage they most often think of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and numerous others who suffered for justice. Their fame emerges from the fact they stood up against injustice at great personal cost. Yet, so did Peter Norman. In fact, he not only lost a great deal because of his willingness to stand up against injustice, but he also did so without the recognition and fame his fellow protestors got from protesting the same acts at the very same time. He died without ever being publically acknowledged for his courage or his great accomplishments as an athlete.

At the Olympics in 1968 three men emerged as winners of the 200-meter race. Two of them were black and one of them white. Two of them were from the United States, and one from Australia. Tommy Smith, the first US Athlete won the Gold, and John Carlos the second US athlete took the bronze in the 200-meter race. They knew that they had this small space in time to use their brief fame to make a statement against the rampant racism in the United States and around the world. The third athlete who was not a citizen of the United States nor a black man was told by these two athletes that they intended to make a political statement during the medal ceremony, one of which was to raise their black-gloved hands in the air as a way to protest racism. Peter saw the importance of this moment and knew he could not just stand silent at this important moment and asked how he could show solidarity with his fellow sprinters. All of this occurred only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr so the whole world was aware of the racial struggles occurring in the United States. Peter also was acutely aware of the racial struggles and discriminating policies of his own country and wanted to give voice to the marginalized people there as well. He was strongly influenced by his religious beliefs (He was a member of the salvation army that believed deeply in the equality and dignity of all people) and felt compelled to be a part of this moment at this time.

While Carlos and Smith are known for the fact they raised their hands in protest that elicited boos, sneers, and angry insults from the crowd, Norman also was looked down on because he chose to wear the badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights during the ceremony. After the protest, Smith, and Carlos were rushed from the stadium and removed from the US Olympic team. They went home to the United States, experienced a great backlash for what many believed was a sign of complete disrespect, and received death threats. This indeed is an example of moral courage. Later, both men were re-accepted into the Olympic fold and had significant athletic careers. However, Peter Norman was not so lucky.

Peter Norman was severely punished by the Australian sports establishment. He remained one of Australias greatest runners qualifying over and over again for the Olympics but the establishment would not let him run. Norman suffered from depression, alcoholism, and an addiction to pain medication and died as a forgotten figure in Australian athletics. He never was able to re-establish his career as a sprinter and never participated in sports on any significant level after that one act of protest for justice. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Australian government apologized for how Peter Norman was treated. Peter Norman certainly suffered for standing up for what is right and just. Moral courage cost him a great deal.

I look around today and I see so many public figures beating their chests and saying whatever they need in order to appeal to and be accepted by those in power. Standing for moral principles seems to be less and less popular in a world that finds morality and principles relative to whatever the mood of the nation is. Yet, I take comfort and inspiration knowing that there are always people like Peter Norman who will silently suffer and be ostracised for a cause not directly related to them. People who have the moral courage to stand for what is right and just even if they’re not those suffering from the injustice simply because their principles dictate that they must be a witness to what is just. These are the people that will continue to be the conscious of an organization and a nation. Thank God we have them.

When All Else Fails Sing – What we Can Learn From Italians Who Defy The Virus

Human beings need one another. Our hearts ache to connect with each other and when we can’t we do everything humanly possible to feel as if we’re connected, even if it’s for a brief moment. People need people and we’re seeing how badly we need one another more and more as we’re being asked to keep away from other people to avoid spreading this dreaded virus. While self quarantine is an important discipline, we still ache to engage our fellow human beings and it seems when we can’t do that not only do our bodies feel as if they’re under siege but our souls do as well.

This desire to connect with one another at this difficult time is being beautifully expressed in Italy. News stories around the world show videos of Italians singing to each other over their balconies as they wait out this terrible experience of self quarantine. You can watch one of these videos here. While the disease caused by this virus is bad enough, the emotional strain caused by isolation is just one more factor eating away at our human spirit. The Italians have found a way to overcome this tragedy and connect to each other through one of the most uniquely human activities one can perform. They are singing songs of hope to one another.

As I watched these videos I started to think how important it is to find ways to connect with one another during this crisis. Psychologists have done numerous studies that demonstrate the importance of human connection. Children raised in orphanages who seldom receive human touch struggle developmentally and sometimes succumb to death. Studies exploring social isolation find that the same pain centers associated with physical pain in the brain are active when an individual feels isolated and socially excluded. We need one another and when we can’t connect to each other we suffer physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially. So the question we need to answer is how can we remain connected with other people when we’re being asked to socially disengage?

I think we need to be mindful that while many of us will be with other people because we’re quarantined with family members living in the same house there are those who live alone that won’t have that same opportunity. They may be single adults, older individuals, or people with illnesses. People who are self quarantined and living alone will feel isolated in a more profound way than those of us isolated as whole families. However, they don’t need to feel alone if we just do some simple things to stay connected to them. What can we do?

First, make phone calls to people you know who are living alone. Check in on them, ask how they’re doing, and see if there is a way you can get them anything they need. Most likely just hearing your voice will be enough to lift their spirits so they can press on another day. Phone calls are simple gestures of care that too often get pushed aside by our texting habit. During a time when people feel alone, the sound of your voice might be a better choice than the “ding” of a text.

Secondly, use Skype or some other video conferencing application to connect with those left alone. We need to see another human face, its a very important part of how we feel connected to people. Often just seeing another human being’s face gives us a sense of comfort and connectedness. Try and make that a reality through Facetime or Google Hangouts. We have the technology to connect with one another so lets try and make it happen for those who feel left alone or isolated without any option to be with people. In fact, there are numerous free video conferencing websites that a number of you can use to get people together, use them to create a virtual social gathering.

Lastly, connect with one another over social media. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. all provide some sense of connection to others. I have a friend who lives about 8 hours from me. Unfortunately he isn’t able to get out much because of his health issues. However, he spends a significant amount of time on Facebook when he can’t be with other people and often he and I engage in chats as well as share pics and memes with one another to the point where it feels like we are in the same room. In fact, after a number of shares and chats we often just call one another to talk about what we’re doing on social media. Even the most minimal engagement through technology can help us feel connected to others.

Nothing can make social isolation perfect and nothing replaces face to face human interaction. Most days we lament the fact we don’t connect in person with other people and remain disconnected through social media. However, maybe social media and technology can be the one thing that helps us keep those living alone feel connected to other people. Maybe this situation will help us reignite the desire to get off the screens we hold in our hands and actually visit with one another when this virus is contained. Ultimately, if none of this works, maybe we can learn from our friends in Italy and let that primal human expression that bubbles up within us emerge from our vocal chords. Maybe, just maybe, we need to sing. When all else fails, sing to one another and let one lonely soul cry out to another through the gift of music.