Time to 'Bell the Cat' -- Seeking Moral Courage in 2012

12/30/2011 12:52 pm ET | Updated Feb 28, 2012

Each year, in the final few weeks of December, I'm intrigued by news stories that attempt to summarize the events of the preceding 12 months into key occurrences or overarching themes. This year, the analysis seems particularly dim: the near demise of the Euro and the lingering threat of a second global financial crisis; the paralysis of the U.S. political system concerning budget and tax issues; and the extremely challenging issues brought to the surface by the range of protests across the Arab world, Russia, and the U.S. It seems there is much to be angry to about; no wonder that Time's person of the year was the Protestor.

This year I read a fable attributed to Aesop which really stuck with me -- it tells the story of a conference of mice who convene to discuss how to protect themselves from a marauding cat. The mice devise a plan to place a bell around the cat's neck so they will be warned when it approaches. This appears to be the perfect plan, until no one steps forward to put the bell around the cat's neck. The conference breaks up in confusion, and nothing is done.

The fable is not unlike the situation we encounter today in dealing with many of our planet's most serious challenges, such as poverty, inequality, conflict, climate change, and disease. It is not that we lack knowledge, ideas, tools, or principles to address these issues. It is that we often cannot summon the collective will, courage, and faith to believe we can achieve what is perceived as an impossibly difficult task. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provided a similar diagnosis: "One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance."

Few might contend that we have corrected the "poverty of spirit" present during Dr. King's time. One of his contemporaries, Robert F. Kennedy, singled out moral courage as the "vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change." Moral courage is as rare as it is vital. It is easy to be an armchair quarterback, to gather in conferences to offer noble solutions to complex global issues, until it is time to discuss who will bell the cat.

There are, however, two striking examples of moral courage I encountered this year that have stuck with me and deserve mention.

Alberto Cairo has worked in Afghanistan for the past 21 years for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and has steadfastly pursued his aim of serving disabled Afghans throughout the wars of the mujahideen, Taliban, and the post-2001 period. His clinics have provided prosthetic arms and legs to thousands of men, women, and children, even during periods of active fighting and under considerable risk. He is a believer that physical rehabilitation is a first step to the individual recovering from trauma and regaining a sense purpose and integrity. "Dignity cannot wait for better times," he said during an inspiring talk to a Ted audience in November.

And in Iran, seven individuals were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for attempting to provide alternative educational opportunities for Baha'i students, who are barred from attending Iran's higher education institutions. The Baha'i Faith has a long history of persecution in Iran, where Baha'is take considerable risks to sustain their communities, which included informal efforts to educate its young members. Nobel Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and Jose Ramos-Horta are among a number of international figures who have condemned the action, praised the individuals who were acting in the face of such pressure, and highlighted the plight of other Iranian youth who have been expelled from universities for "holding viewpoints determined to be counter to the ruling party."

We don't all get opportunities to display such faith, perseverance, and courage in the face of risk and persecution. But we can be awake to the depth of our human will, just as we are cognizant of the extent of our human resources. As Robert Kennedy continued, "Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Oftentimes our efforts to do the right thing in uncomfortable circumstances do not attract much attention or result in far reaching consequences. In fact, these struggles may occur quietly, the battle occurring mostly within, with the path of least resistance the most attractive option precisely because no one may even notice the effort to do anything different. This, then, is perhaps the time when it counts the most, when we make choices because of the principles involved, not because we are certain of its impact. Rabbi Tarfon, a member of the third generation of Mishnah sages, said roughly 2,000 year ago, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

As we head in 2012 there is indeed an awful lot of work to be done. May we manage to show greater courage in dealing with global challenges, lest we end up like the conference of the mice.