Start with What is Right…

On my first day to Bratislava, I took a free tour of the city conducted by Free Tours Bratislava, and when you visit the city, I can’t recommend it enough. Our guide was excellent, not only discussing the landmarks and history of the city, but providing an excellent history of Slovakia’s complex political evolution from its origins through the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the Velvet Divorce from the Czech Republic in 1993. When you visit Bratislava (and you will!) be sure to take the tour.

One of the most striking moments of the tour came near its conclusion, when our guide showed us an incredibly powerful photograph I’ve never seen. It depicts a young Slovakian plumber, who, when confronted by the surprise invasion of the Red Army in 1968, ripped open his shirt and bared his chest to the turret of a tank, his face contorted in rage and sorrow. It’s a remarkable document of one of the central moments in modern Slovakian history, and the story of how the photograph was seen by the rest of the world only adds to the courage of the resistance shown by the young people tired of Soviet oppression in their country.

What had been acceptable for years, the de facto occupation of their country by those who had liberated them in World War 2, was no something that could be tolerated by those of conscience and courage.

The photo, and the discussion of that moment in Slovakian history, also reminded me of an image I saw in the Kafka Museum in Prague. On a postcard featuring a suitably indignant Kafka, someone had stamped one of his quotes: “Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.” It’s a profound statement that resonates powerfully with me: in the great battles of our lives, from career to friends and family, moral challenge to ethical dilemmas, it seems we are conditioned to negotiate from a position of what we can live with, not to fight for what is right. Despite our rich national legacy of civil disobedience and individualism, it often feels like the people we value most in institutions and businesses are those who most quickly move to accepting what is tolerable, rather than fighting for what they believe in.

And the tension between the two seeps into our personal lives as well. Whether it’s the place we live, the conditions we accept in our jobs, the willingness to continue relationships that have perhaps moved from something right to something we live with, we all, I think struggle with the battle between fighting for what is right or accepting our lives. Thoreau might say something about leading lives of quiet desperation here, but it may be more insidious. We may not even realize just how desperate we are to break from the bonds of what is tolerable, safe, and comforting.

The truth is that for every skirmish you should fight at work there will always be someone to ask if it’s really worth it, for every person you want to love, someone who will tell you the risk isn’t worth the reward, and for every moment that demands courage, someone who will tell you to just be sensible. And the someone, more often than not, is probably you.

Those Slovaks were risking their lives in the moment they resisted the Soviet occupiers, but I’m not sure the stakes are any less high for us. Accepting what is enough, but not all we want, may not risk our lives in a flash of violence, but a life lived for what is acceptable will sure kill us before we have truly lived.