IF YOU SEE SOMEONE DROWNING
Gage, a high school student working on a history project about Woody Guthrie asked me how people should “take a stand for others.” Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s Woody was one of my heroes, a man who celebrated and stood up for “the common man,” one who inspired my own political activism for the last 40 years.
Here’s the gist of what I told Gage. First of all, I believe we are all “the common man” – some of us achieve more fame, wealth, recognition, etc – but we are all born naked and we all die naked. In between, we all put our pants on one leg at a time. We love, we eat, we try to share the earth as best we can. Some of us do a better job of sharing than others. The first step in standing up for others is to recognize that people are all the same. We are all in the same lifeboat and we need each other.
Last summer I attended the 95th birthday party of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who, during World War II organized the rescue of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. The penalty for aiding Jews then was death and often the death of one’s family. Human decency was a capital crime. The Gestapo arrested and tortured her and amazingly, she escaped only to continue her illegal efforts to help Jewish children. Irena Sendler’s father taught her that “If you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, even if you can’t swim.” That’s what she was doing. Sitting in Warsaw with this remarkable hero I couldn’t help wondering, what would I do?
Irena Sendler did what few of us would do. When asked why she put herself at such risk to save Jewish children she says she did it as “a need of her heart.” Irena Sendler was following her heart and that’s what I think is key.
Few of us will have Irena Sendler’s courage, but I think in our hearts we have the instinct to save the drowning person. I believe it is our nature to stand up for others and if we listen to that place in our hearts we’ll act accordingly.
I also told Gage one person can’t do it all. You do what you can, when you can and forgive yourself for that part of the world you can’t fix.
The Quakers have a saying – “there is that which is of God in everyone.” I believe that essence of God, what Irena Sendler called “the need of her heart,” tells us how to take a stand for righteousness and goodness. Our challenge is to listen for that often small voice and be courageous enough to act.
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