|What is moral courage?
Moral Courage is the nesting placeof everything we lackto end
preventable human suffering.
“There’s more than ten thousand dollars in receipts in the cigar box, “my unclesaid. You may order essay editing services
at the main page of the site.
It was March, 1972, and my grandfather had died the month before. I was stayingwith my
grandmother while I was home on spring break from the University ofIowa. She sat in a wooden
rocking chair that had once been varnished darkwalnut, but the only way you’d know that was by
the streaks of shiny brown on thefew places where life hadn't stripped the chair to a grayed, bare
pine. I sat on thegreen sofa-bed, its worn spots covered by a tan wool blanket and matching
handtowels over its arms. One of her hands waltzed lightly over my grandfather’spipestand
and tobacco bowlon the end table next to her as she spoke.
“Jake didn't dun folks.” My uncle had anticipated her response and began hisrehearsed counter
before she finished speaking.
“I know, but you need the money, and they owe it. And you could help Mona Lynnego back to that
college.” He knew he could tempt her more by what she could dofor me than for herself.
“I can’t think of anything we can’t do without today,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, “You're right. I won’t dun anybody. But most of ‘em were atDaddy's funeral and
almost everyone asked me to call ‘em and tell ‘em what theyowe. And, I said I would. Shouldn't
I do that since they asked?”
“Maybe so,” she said after a long pause, “but not today. Can’t it wait till Mon’Lynnegoes back to
Iowa City next week?”
“Oh, yeah, don’t know why not. I’ll come back next week then.”
“Bamp,” as his grandchildren called him, had been a popular auto mechanic. Ifhe had the part
or could afford to buy the part himself, he never turned anyoneaway who couldn't afford a car
repair. He’d tell them to write what they owed on aslip of paper and put it in a cigar box on a
bench in the back of his garage. Henever looked in the box, never knew what anyone owed him,
and never knewwhen he repaired someone’s car if there was already a slip in the cigar box or
not. When someone came to pay him, he’d direct them to the cigar box, andaccept whatever
cash he was handed and put it into another cigar box he kept forcash. The person either took
the slip back or edited the slip to indicate theamount still owed. He believed it was wrong, in any
way, to remind his customersof their debt.
“It’s painful to not be able to pay your bills,” he’d explain. “I’m not gonna add toany family’s pain
by rubbin' their nose in hard luck.” The slips weren't for hisrecords. They were for the
convenience of his customers who’d asked him forsome way to remind them what they owed.
He never looked at the slips. Never. Moreover, he made it very clear that he would consider it
mean and wrong foranyone else to look at them either. He was so clear, that until he died, none
of usever did.
Many of his customers were African Americans, though no one called them thatthen. This was
how he met his best friend, a Black man with the same name ashis, Jake Nelson. Gramoften
saidthat if they hadn't solved the world’s problemsit wasn't because they hadn't put the time into
it. A school teacher complimentedBamp once for being willing to do business with the
“coloreds” to which hereplied, “Don’t take offense, but I’d just as soon not get a pat on the back
for notbeing an asshole.”
Another time a woman asked him whether white or colored folks were more apt toask for credit.
“I couldn't tell ya,” he answered honestly, “I don’t see a reason to gitinterested in that, do you?”
So, I was surprised that my grandmother had relented so easily. I assumed that ifUncle Eddie
hadn't made the promise he had at the funeral, she might not have.
I was secretly glad. I looked around the tiny living room or the “front” room as shecalled it.
There wasn't a stick of furniture that wasn't older than I, and it wasprobably second-hand when it
was purchased. Besides the couch and therocking chair, therewerea tattered vinyl recliner, a
coffee table pocked withinnumerable and concentric white rings, a bookcase filled with 1940s
encyclopedias used by mother and uncles while they were in school, and anEmerson television
they’d bought in 1952. The floor was a scuffed, floweredlinoleum. The places worn to the
cement beneath it were mostly covered by ragrugs that were made by hand. There were often
more visitors in their home thanthe furniture could sit. When this happened, chairs were
brought in from thekitchen or the garage. When these ran out, children would sit on laps, or
folkswould sit on the rugs on the floor.
There was rarely an evening when the front room wasn't filled to capacity. Folksdropped by
most often unannounced. Gram would make strong coffee or iced teaand put out a plate of
Vista Pak sandwich cookies or those almond ones shapedlike windmills. Bamp would sit in
the rocking chair and tell stories while hesmoked his pipe. The evening ended when the story
and his pipe tobacco endedat the same time. He would repack the pipe if he was in the middle
of a story. Ifthe story ended while his pipe still held any tobacco, he would begin a new story.
The ritual took hours, and few held on to the bitter end. Those who had to gethome would often
come back the next night and request to hear one story oranother early in the evening in order to
learn how it ended.
The kitchen was far less elegant. A tiny red and white table on rusting chromelegs and three
red chairs were along the long wall; a four-burner gas stove filledthe short wall at the end of the
room. On the other long wall was a sink and arefrigerator they had bought used in 1942. It had
been manufactured sometime inthe late 1930s and had the motor on the top. The refrigerator
still ran just fine, afact that was repeated anytime it was hinted that it might be time to replace it.
Everything in the tiny cottage attached to the large four-bay mechanic’s garagehad a matte
patina from the abrasion of coal dust. The scent of burning coal wasomnipresent and could be
smelled even in the summer. It is like no other scent,dry and crisp, with a warm, bitter hint. My
nostrils stillstretchwhen I think of it, andmy throat dehydrates from the memory of its swab.
Maybe we didn't need anything today, but there were so many things I thought shehad a right to
have. A new refrigerator, a new couch, maybe even a wall-to-wallcarpet or a new winter coat. Or
a t-bone dinner at a restaurant or a new set ofdishes. She was living on $300/month Social
Security, and she was only 58 andhad a pace-maker. Maybe it was enough now, but who knew
what she mightneed and when? I was secretly glad she was going to have any amount of that
money Eddie could collect.
“Are you chilly, Mon’Lynne?” my grandmother asked a few hours after my uncle’svisit.
“Not really, Gram.” I said. I was a little chilly, but not nearly enough to want tostoke up the
furnace. “I can put on a sweater. Want me to grab yours?”
“Well, I’m chilly.” She said. “Help me fix a fire.”
We trudged to the garage, and Gram pulled the wrapped wire handle to the doorof the furnace,
and I slid in a shovel of coal.
“I think that’s enough to take the chill off for tonight,” she said and tore strips ofnewspapers and
tossed them on top. “Oh, we’re gonna need more kindlin' I think.”
I didn't think we did, but I reached for another newspaper just the same.
“Let’s not waste those,” she said. “What else we could we use?”
She looked dead, straight into my eyes without blinking. She looked beyond myeyes, in truth, to
a place where she held a singular prerogative to communicateinside my core. And, soI knew
what shemeant. I started to ask, “Are you sure,Gram?” but she spoke before I could.
“Just go get ‘em.”
She’d already lit the fire before I returned withthedogged-ear cigar box, thedignified Indian on
its lid burnishedto near imperceptibilityyears ago.
“Open it,” she whispered the order.
I did, and she lifted out a handful of slips and let them fall from her open, out-stretched hand onto
“Now it’s your turn.”
I looked into the box and felt a sense of awe and holiness as if it were theArkofthe Covenant, a
metaphor that over the years has become less and less of anexaggeration. It held more slips
than were physically possible, literally hundredsof them, and their volume ballooned
exponentially far, far larger than the size ofthe box once the lid was lifted. The slips seemed to
glow. They were all sizes andcolors, somefolded, some flat, some crinkled, some torn. Neat
handwriting,illegible scrawls,some with dates and amounts crossed off, some with lines and
sums ofcolumns. Some with words or messages I didn't have time to read norunderstand.
“Don’t look at them,” she said. “Just turn the box over and let'em land.”
We didn't speak. We didn't touch. We didn't weep. We didn't laugh. We juststood there
shoulder-to-shoulder and watched them burn.
As they curled and dissolved, I began to feel warm, but there was somethingstrange about it,
and I began to wonder about that. Then, I realized the warmthwas coming from the inside out,
toward the fire and not from the fire. I feltsomething I’d never felt before or at least not that way or
to that extent. I foundmyself looking for a word for the feeling. I still look for that word. The only
wordthat came to me then is still the one that comes closest today. I felt victorious. Ifelt calmly,
solidly, victorious and utterly secure.
I understood things in that moment that I would forget again and again, howeverrelentlessly life
would remind me. Each ember, each crackle, sparked a newunderstanding. I understood how
to have power over lack and status and greed. Iunderstood I simply needed to not believe in
them. I understood what Bampmeant when he told me before he died how life had given him
more than anyonehad ever wanted. He had said that because it was absolutely true. He died
withall the end results of all the things everyone does to get what he had. Iunderstood why he
said you were better off dying from starvation sharing your lastcrust of bread than dying with a
full belly if someone else was hungry. Iunderstood why he was always kidding me to make
sure I didn’t let all that book-learnin’ keep me from having good sense. I understood what I really
wanted tolearn, what I really wanted to know. I understood the difference between investingin
what I wanted instead of ways to get what I wanted. I understood how much wesquander when
weexchange our time here on Earth for the latter. I understoodthathuman pain decreases as
sharing and decency become routine.
His cigar box was a nesting place of everything we need to end preventablehuman suffering.
Each slip was a testament to compassion and a willingness tosacrifice to make things better
for others. Each slip proved the senselessness ofwealth and status in all that really matters.
Each slip eschewed praise orrecognition for good deeds. Each slip believed that everyone had
the courageand the wit to do the right thing. Each slip believed we could and would do it. His
cigar box was moral courage.
My grandmother knew this too. In some ways even more than he did, I think. Shepoured me a
cold glass of milk and gave me a couple of cookies once we wereback inside.
“Those are the best cookies you've ever eaten,ain't they?”
“Yeah,” I saidnot all thatsurprised that she knew what I was thinking, “They reallyare.”
“You’ll sleep good tonight,” she smiled.
And, of course, I did.
Ending preventable human suffering is utterly possible. It’s rather silly, if not anoutright lie, to
claim that it’s not. We only need to decide we’d rather end sufferingthan acquire material things
or feel superior and accomplished via some dimnotion of success. We simply need moral
Moral courage isn't a demonstration of sainthood by a marginalized avatar beforea throng to
later become martyred then canonized orbestowedsome othersecularequivalent. It is the
ordinary person whose name you will never know,who--pastfood, shelter, and treatment for
illness or injury--couldn't care lessabout what onehas; and yet is very concerned with what one
can give. The worldis changedeasily when a collective of suchsoulschoose, despite the world’
scontradictions, each day, no matter what, to give more, care more, speak outmore, sacrifice
more, and encourage others to do the same.
I've forgotten this lesson and lost my way many times. I hope to never do soagain. I’m far more
flawed than my grandparents, and I’ll need the rest of this lifeto approach their understanding
and grace. But, if I forget now and then or forgetaltogether, my foolishness won'tshrinkits
truth. The truth of itwill always remainavailable for those withaheartthat seekschange.