Cowards Within

David Brooks published an article in the New York Times yesterday about the Penn State scandal – you can read it HERE. I think he is spot on.

I’ve been thinking about Mark McQueary the last few days and I think I’ve changed my mind about something. The story is that McQueary allegedly walked in on Sandusky as he was raping a young boy – and then walked right back out. He told his father, told school officials, told Joe Paterno, and that was it. Naturally, most people are outraged and disgusted by the fact that McQueary walked away, instead of running over and rescuing the boy. One writer declared that he would take the boy in his arms and tell him “I am here. You are safe.” While a warm embrace from a stranger strikes me as the last thing a rape victim needs, I get what he means.

Every man I have seen write about Mark McQueary has been universal in their condemnation of his actions – and they should be. Yet every one of them has been equally certain that, presented with the same circumstances, they would have reacted differently. Of course we would all expect as much of any decent person. The problem is that as David Brooks notes, people who know for sure how they would act in a hypothetical situation routinely contradict themselves when placed in a similar real-life situation.

I think there is another reason that men are especially repulsed by what McQueary did, and why they are so eager to say that they would have done differently. Men are protectors; or at least, they are supposed to be. When we see a man fail so utterly to protect the helpless, we are filled with anger: this is not how things are supposed to be. So there is that side of things, because we implicitly know how men are supposed to act.

But when men declare publicly that they would act differently, I think that they are going beyond simply saying how men in general should act. I believe that the greatest fear of every man is this: that deep down, he is a coward. All men, whether they would acknowledge it or not, secretly fear that when placed into circumstances that are dangerous, or difficult, they will fail. Not fail to succeed, but fail to act as they should.

Let’s say that you go back in time and find 25 year-old Mark McQueary. The incident in the showers is still a few years away, but you ask him what he would do should he find himself in that “hypothetical” situation. I guarantee you that if you told him that he would walk away, he would deny it, become furious at the very suggestion. Yet what he actually did tells us who he truly is.

And the greatest fear of most, if not all men, is that when it comes down to it, their true self will be revealed as cowardly.

It is certainly my greatest fear. I want to believe that I would do the right thing, the brave thing in every situation. The truth is that I do not know. I want to believe with every part of me that I would have saved that boy from Sandusky – but the truth is that I have often failed to protect the helpless. Yes, there have been times when I have stood up and protected them and though none of my failures reach the magnitude of McQueary’s, the dozens of small, seemingly insignificant failures make me wonder which side of me would prevail in those moments that matter most.

The truth is, that courage must be practiced every day, and in all things. It is not enough to know what is right, it is not even enough to want to do right. I can make all the declarations I want – there is still a coward within, and my fight is with him and not Mark McQueary.


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