Lessons For My Son: #3 Do What is Right

When I was 24 years old I sat in a class room on Camp Barrett aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico. I was attending The Basic School, a place where the Marine Corps provides all newly commissioned officers with a six month intensive course in leadership. One of the best lessons in leadership I received from that school was presented to me when we received our first address from our Commanding Officer Colonel Todd Desgrosseilliers. He was a very small balding man and the recipient of a Silver Star. At the end of his discussion a fellow student began to stammer through an extremely complicated question.

Half-way through the question Colonel Degrosseilliers interrupted the young man and said leadership is simple. He turned toward the class and stated, “always do the right thing and when your actions come into question you will be able to withstand trial.” Many people disagreed with Colonel Degrosseilliers’ leadership style at the school. Yet this statement resounded with me deeply and it became something I would preach to the Marines I would one day be in charge of. So for you my son, how can I amplify such a simple statement into a lesson that is easy to digest and understand?

It starts with the story of a woman named Kitty Genovese. Kitty Genovese was a Boston native who was arriving home from work on the night of March 13th, 1964. She arrived home at 3:15am to find a man trailing her with a hunting knife. The man proceeded assault Kitty Genovese causing her to scream out for help. When she did scream for help the man ran away and Kitty crawled to her apartment before her wounds rendered her unconscious. No one came. Whats more is the man who assaulted her returned to the scene and proceeded to do horrible things to her. Again, no one came to her aid.

Police would go on to investigate the murder of Kitty Genovese and determine that around 38 people over heard the assault and not a single one of them came to her aid or even called the police. Psychologists would go on to investigate the cause of these people refusing to get in involved. What they discovered was a psychological phenomenon known as bystander effect. Bystander effect is when people witness a horrific event and do nothing to stop it out of the hope or belief that someone else will step in. Many of them choose not to help out of self preservation or a belief that this problem does not impact them directly.

I don’t tell you this story to scare you, but to give you a real life application for what it means to do the right thing. As a people we should despise and strengthen ourselves against evil people. Yet, what is more important is that we despise the inability of good people to stand up against those evil forces, people, and things that exist in this world. Bystander effect is a real thing that can and has overcome many of us. Your job is not to be a vigilante in this world who is constantly seeking trouble or you will surely find it. Your job is to prepare yourself for the evil that may one day darken your door or bring harm to those people you care about most.

Determining when you can and should step in to help a person you barely know is a decision you will struggle with on almost a daily basis. If you live a fulfilled life, you will be confronted with this choice and learn this lesson repeatedly. The day will come when I am unable to be near you to encourage you to step in or remain steadfast in your decision not to involve yourself in a questionable situation. What I can provide you with is a mantra that was also taught to me while at The Basic School in Quantico. Adopt the mantra, “If not me, then Who?”

Throughout history we can see this lesson repeated over and over again. At the conclusion of one of the darkest times in our world’s history, the holocaust, many people were forced to confront their inability to stand up against evil. Martin Niemoller poetically encompassed his inability to stand up in the following quote:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Martin Niemoller

I pray you are never faced with the guilt of failing to stand up for what you believe in. We will talk about guilt and the lessons it teaches us in another post. If I do my job as your father I will provide you plenty of lessons in choosing whether or not you should stand up and fight or remain a pacifist. At times both paths prove prudent. All I ask is that whenever you decide to walk away from conflict you ask yourself if you are doing the right thing. Until then I leave you with my favorite modification of a quote attributed to John Stuart Mill.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.

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