Virginia Tech and the Cultivation of Courage

I remember going for an evening walk with my young wife some years ago. As we strolled past a heavily wooded yard with a house barely visible, I suddenly heard the menacing growl of a very obviously big and mean dog. My immediate reaction was to run. The big muscles in my legs flexed and fired. The only thing that stopped me was my wife’s anguished cry, “Hunter, don’t leave me!” I forced down the fear impulse, backed up and put myself between her and the threatening sound. We walked on and nothing happened.

When Professor Librescu, an old man, a septuagenarian whose body had been through the terrors of the Holocaust, spotted a terrible threat he pushed his weight against a door and tried to keep a killer from murdering his students. All but two of the students and Librescu got away. In an email exchange yesterday, one of our Redstate contributors wondered why able-bodied young men would have chosen to run instead of coming to the assistance of their heroic professor.

Thinking of my own experience and looking at what happened in that besieged classroom in Virginia, I think I know the answer. Liviu Librescu had seen death up close much earlier in life. He very probably saw his friends and neighbors killed and had many opportunities to measure his own reactions in light of right and wrong, valor and heroism. It is no surprise to me that such a man would resist rather than run. I suggest to you that he knew exactly who he was. The young men in that classroom were probably a lot like me in the situation with the dog. They were untested and had probably never been in serious physical danger. More important, they had probably never stopped to consider what they would expect of themselves in a life and death situation.

There are a couple of lessons that come to mind. The one that many conservatives will point to is that we have a culture that does not successfully impute manliness. We already knew the ethic of dedication to wife and children had slipped badly. We knew less well that we weren’t raising boys with expectations of self-sacrifice and protectiveness toward others. But this is the smaller of the two lessons.

The greater lesson is that we should all take pains to reflect on who we want to be and what we really believe. It was once common to speak of the examined life. That phrase fell under the massive heap of self-help materials and endless reflection on why we don’t have a better sex life, more money, and a better job. But the examined life goes deeper than that. It comes down to knowing who you are. Without it, you will almost inevitably run in the face of danger, quail before the bully, and excel in self-justification after the fact rather than action in the relevant frame.

Jeff Emanuel made the point in his post that none of us know how we will react in these situations. I believe he is right about that, but I am at least equally sure that we can prepare ourselves for the event and drastically increase the chance that we WILL do what we merely hope we would.


6 thoughts on “Virginia Tech and the Cultivation of Courage

  1. He knew that he had been vouchsafed 62 years of life since the Holocaust as a gift.

    When he stood between a mass murderer and defenseless youngsters on Holocaust Memorial Day, he understood he was being called.

  2. You know, as soon as I heard of this, I wondered what an Israeli would have done. Now we know.

  3. A great deal of the exercise of traditional Catholic moral theology (the sort of exercise that secular moderns deride as ‘angels dancing on the heads of pins’) is precisely designed to make one consider, as a real possibility, what one would do in a variety of situations that sound, in a classroom or one’s comfortable home, laughably improbable. The point being that when you have to decide, you will not have the leisure to think. You must already know what is right.

    Perhaps all one can ultimately say about living the examined life is that we do it so that when we are called, it will not be in a tongue we do not speak.

  4. Jay could tell us what holy words would have strengthened Professor Librescu in his final moments. I expect they stray not too far from John 15:13. Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

  5. I suggest to you that he knew exactly who he was.

    I suspect that this will be as close as any of us will get to explaining why the Professor Librescu’s of the world do what they do. You don’t prepare for an event like this, you just are what you are when it happens.

    That said, I hope we (the public at large) don’t go overboard questioning the manhood(?) of the young people at the scene who found themselves moving in a different direction than Professor Librescu. Life has a way of sneaking up on the best of us – the rooster crows and all we can do is wonder what we just did.

    Fortunately, it also seems that life has a way of allowing us to redeem certain aspects of our past. And so rather than looking down at these students, I find myself wondering if we’ll ever get a chance to find out what might lie ahead for these young people.

    I doubt that the Professor Librescu’s of the world could come about any other way.

  6. Kathy, that’s extremely well put. Matt, I don’t mean to pick on those kids. I have no right to do so. I’m merely offering the lesson to myself and others. Contemplate these things and know ahead of time what you’ll do.

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