Indefensible and I don’t know

Daily Prompt: Shipwrecked!

Read the story of Richard Parker and Tom Dudley. Is what Dudley did defensible? What would you have done?

Athena and Centaur by BoticelliOne of my greatest fears is not knowing, with certainly, what I am capable of doing, rightly or wrongly, in a crisis situation like that of Richard Parker and Tom Dudley.  I can easily assert (a little too easily) what I know to be right and what I hope to be capable of, but to not go through the furnace is, well… to not go through the furnace; to not know with any certainty if I’d pass the test.

The Titanic offers examples of both courage and cowardice; many people in the same situation choosing differently.  Perhaps it’s unfair to call someone a coward merely for being consumed and paralyzed with the fear of dying and leaving all family and life behind.  It is a strong word.  But consider the stakes.  Are there not tests of character out there waiting for us, tests that will, before they are over, reveal us to be either cowards or heroes?  Maybe.  Is that a false dichotomy?  Is that unfair?  Maybe there should be three categories: Hero, Coward and Present.

I’ve seen a quote chiseled in stone that “heroes are to be remembered not for how they died but for how they lived,” or something to that effect.  I understand the sentiment, but I disagree.  I think it cheapens the test they have passed.  When in reference to a specific event, heroes are honored for what they did at a given point in time when they had a choice to do otherwise.  Why water down what was clearly courage at a much needed time?  It’s like insisting that an honorary degree is the same as fully accredited degree.  They are not!  You either earned it by doing the work and passing the tests, or you didn’t.

Actually, the title given to heroes is more for our benefit–we, the witnesses, we the untested–than for theirs.  Many people who are called heroes are uncomfortable with the title, feeling that they did only what came naturally to them because it was the only thing they thought to do; that they acted automatically.  But while they are uncomfortable with the title, we are not.  We are more comfortable around them because they have passed the test.  Hero, like coward, is a strong word and shouldn’t be used lightly or so broadly as it seems to be today.

I would like to think that in the case of Dudley and Stephens I would be capable of sacrificing my life for others.  If not that, then I hope I would at least be capable of not killing someone who I deemed “worthy for the cause.”  Better we should all die than to take an innocent life.

I think the judges’ statement puts it best:

It must not be supposed that in refusing to admit temptation to be an excuse for crime it is forgotten how terrible the temptation was; how awful the suffering; how hard in such trials to keep the judgment straight and the conduct pure. We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules which we could not ourselves satisfy. But a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime.

The law–a commitment of sober minds we should remember–is there to hold our hands when we are tempted to move the line between right and wrong, lawful and unlawful.  If I find that my so-called steadfastness sways with whatever wind happens to be passing by at the moment, perhaps I should ask, “what is the law” before I ask “what would I do.”

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