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Whenever we hear about a true-life hero we wonder how we would react in a similar situation. In some cases, it's easy: Yes, I would risk everything to save my child from harm. In other cases, it's not so easy: If I report my fellow employee, I may lose my job and jeopardize my family's well being.
In Beautiful Souls (out in paperback last month), Eyal Press examines the lives of four ordinary people who stood up against the tide to do what they thought was the right thing. Before I get to the particulars, here is the publisher's summary:
History has produced many specimens of the banality of evil, but what about its flip side, what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention? Through these dramatic stories of unlikely resisters, Eyal Press’ Beautiful Souls shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not only by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but also by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.In this short book, Press takes the question of individual heroism to a greater plane. He doesn't ask what motivates us to stand up for a friend or relative or how a fireman finds the strength to enter a burning building. Instead he wants to know why some people possess the courage to do the right thing for strangers, despite great personal cost, such as losing a job, being shunned by the community, or risking arrest or death.
To explore the issue of personal courage, Press chose four individuals. Three are from wartime: A police officer who helped Jewish refugees in Switzerland in 1938, a Serb who lied to protect Croats from being killed; a young man who refused to partake in the Israeli Army's missions against Palestinians, and a broker who blew the whistle on her company, reporting wrongdoings to the SEC.
Each person is the subject of a single chapter, in which Press sets up the historic situation, introduces us to the rebel, and presents the facts of the defiant act. The stories were gleaned from personal interviews and the public record. Then Press looks deeper into each case, calling on literature, history, and psychological and philosophical studies about courage, defiance, moral fortitude, and altruism.
Although there are no clear answers, there are plenty of questions and much to ponder. For example, Press cites Thoreau's writings, especially his essay on civil disobedience, and makes the distinction between acting for the greater good and acting as an expression of personal standards. In the first case, you are motivated to, say, abolish slavery everywhere, but in the second case you are motivated to free only your own slaves to maintain your own "moral purity." Is one somehow better or more courageous than the other?
Most interesting to me is that, despite the great personal costs, ordinary heroes say they would do the very same thing again, even knowing their acts will negatively change their lives forever.
Eyal Press's Beautiful Souls is not inspirational reading, though you may be inspired; it's an examination of what it means to have the strength of your convictions. As Press says: "This is a book about . . . nonconformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist. (p. 5)." I'd like to think I'd be so brave, but I'm not completely sure.
Picador USA is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, visit the Picador's website. While there, take a look at the Picador book club and reading guides and sign up for their newsletters. For up-to-date news, don't miss their Tumblr site or Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.
Buy Beautiful Souls at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Macmillan / Picador 2013
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