Beautiful SoulsBeautiful Souls
by Eyal Press

“Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

This is the second time in about a year that I’ve been drawn back to this book. In other contexts far afield from these, the four stories in this book have stayed in my mind as having something relevant to teach me. My thoughts keep exploring them from all sorts of angles.

There is the story of Paul Gruninger, a Swiss police official who falsified entry dates on travel documents to allow Jewish refugees to enter Switzerland from Nazi Germany in 1939. There is the story of Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb who saved Croat neighbors during the 1991 Yugoslavian civil war by inventing Serbian-sounding names for them and insisting they were Serbs. There is the story of Avner Wishnitzer, an Israeli soldier who decided in 2003 to announce his refusal to serve any longer in the occupied West Bank. There is the story of Leyla Wydler, a Texas stockbroker who in 2009 testified against her own company and provided evidence of their crooked financial practices. Four very different people, four very different sets of times, places, and circumstances. Yet this common thread — all walked a path that veered from the one being taken by the crowd around them, all chose a less-traveled path which seemed to them the only obvious right one.

I’m drawn to books that tell me true stories of people doing good things. I know that there’s a lot of darkness in the world, yet reading books that focus on the pervasiveness and power of the darkness don’t help me to live any better. Reading negativity makes me feel afraid and powerless to stand against it. It’s when I read about the strength of goodness that I am encouraged to stretch more strongly towards goodness myself. It’s not that the darkness doesn’t exist, or that it can’t hurt people. Rather, it’s that darkness hasn’t been able to extinguish the light. As long as I am reading about people who simply walk straight ahead through the darkness with their vision fixed on light, I can follow their line of sight and keep that light in view for myself.

Talking to someone who tears everything down, who puts the darkest and most cynical spin on everything, is destructive to my own life. No matter how disturbing life looks at any moment, if I’m in the company of somebody who will remind me of goodness and point my eyes towards the light, I can lift up my head and keep going. If I react this way to the people around me, I also react the same way to books. I need books that put strength into me, not books that suck away strength. I need books that teach me how to be a better person, how to help make a better life.

The circumstances of my life, or of most people’s lives, don’t put us in situations of confronting stark evil or heroic life-and-death drama. Yet the people who do face those kinds of circumstances were preparing all their lives, in thousands of small ways, for the moment of the test. Rosa Parks didn’t just decide to ignite a revolution on a bus one day out of the blue. She had spent a lifetime slowly traveling the winding paths that led to that day. The people in Beautiful Souls, too, had become the kind of people who did such things through doing similar things in more routine ways every day of their lives. Millions of passing daily thoughts and words and actions build up an overall pattern to each of our lives. If reading about people like these gives me help to wrestle through the minutiae of my own ordinary days more mindfully, then it doesn’t matter that my day’s choices are more mundane than theirs. What matters is that their stories are helping to shape my story.

At one point in this book, the author talks about people drifting into evil without awareness of evil intent, simply by becoming gradually desensitized to it, one seemingly insignificant choice at a time. “One reason ordinary people were capable of carrying out unjust orders was habituation. You pulled one switch on the voltage generator, then a couple more, and after a while you stopped agonizing about it, not least since you’d already dirtied your hands a bit. As counterintuitive as it might seem, might a similar process unfold among people who resist? … Resistance to authority often begins not with grand gestures carried out in the name of abstract causes but small, modest actions that rarely seem unusual to the people carrying them out. “

Later in the book, the author considers how the accumulation of such small, modest actions by some people shapes the way other people understand their own moral choices. “Even when the people engaging in them have limited ambitions, acts of conscience have a way of reverberating. … Why do such ripple effects occur when, as courts have sometimes ruled, conscience is a merely personal moral code, the faculty that individuals consult when disregarding other voices?”  While the book’s subtitle refers to “breaking ranks”, none of the people it describes were iconoclastic loners who completely disregarded other voices. Rather, they were people who assumed that certain moral truths were obvious and widely understood — that police and soldiers in a civilized country protect the weak, that neighbors have each other’s backs when thugs come down the street, that accountants warn their clients of doubtful investments. When faced with the suggestion that they do exactly the opposite, these people said “no, of course not” with the assurance that what they were doing was “normal”, and that what they were being asked to do was a shocking departure. When asked to explain their choices afterwards, it’s striking that most of these “heroes” simply said, “What else could I do?” What they did seemed to them the only natural and normal thing.

If this is the way it works, then it actually makes sense that we would want to fill our thoughts with stories like these. We use these stories to remind ourselves that daily moral choices of people like ourselves, no matter how routine, accumulate to make up the larger moral patterns of human society. By recollecting all the good examples we’ve heard of, we are creating in ourselves a sense of what is “normal”, deliberately choosing to set up light as the norm. This is how we train ourselves to walk towards the light, so that we will turn towards it more and more instinctively as the years pass, so that we, too, will automatically say “no, of course not” when invited to deviate from it.