I found a very interesting story the other day that highlights moral courage in an unusual way. Animal fables typically offer the lion and the fox as examples of physical courage and intellectual courage, brawn vs. brains. Here we have a story from the very old Gypsy tradition, a story which demonstrates a different way an outcast group manages to survive. I found The Lion, the Fox, and the Bird in The Fish Bride and Other Gypsy Tales, retold by Jean Russel Larson. This is book well worth reading if you can find it. I’ll just summarize this story briefly.
In this story, a new bird arrives in a part of the forest that is home to a lion and a fox. Not being a fast flyer, the bird is warned by everyone to leave. “I’ll have to get the lion and the fox to leave,” the bird replies. “It’s really too dangerous to have them here.” While the lion and the fox are both contemplating the nice meal they’ll make of the bird, the bird turns the tables on them both by appealing for help. The bird asks the lion to perform an act of physical strength (moving some fallen trees to reveal the berry bushes) and the fox to figure out how to get reeds from the pond for building a nest (he tells the herons that the fishing will be better if they pull out the reeds). Both lion and fox are stymied by this appeal to their generosity, as they cannot eat someone they’ve helped, and they must help when someone weaker asks for assistance. Once they have taken responsibility for the bird by helping, they must do the right thing and leave it be. Hungry, and rather baffled at having chosen not to eat the bird, the lion and the fox leave that part of the forest and search for somebody else to eat.
I find this fable fascinating for its insight into the tenuous social status of the nomadic Gypsies, or Rom, as they call themselves. Always being an outsider who is greeted with suspicion means that they must get others to do the right thing themselves, rather than trick them (like a fox) or overpower them (like a lion). Next time the Rom pass this way they don’t want to find revenge or bitterness waiting for them. If instead they find people who have already chosen not to hurt them, that’s the best outcome!
Moral courage, as we have said on Lion’s Whiskers, entails discerning and doing the right thing. It speaks to the character traits of responsibility, accountability, and integrity, among others. Sometimes doing the right thing means finding a way to encourage others to do the right thing, especially when their own moral courage is on the wane. People who hold power (bosses, political leaders, corporate stakeholders, etc.) are likely to bristle when we hold them accountable for the things they are busy rationalizing or justifying; and when our children hold us accountable we may feel that bristling in ourselves. I know I do! Integrity and accountability aren’t always very comfortable in the moment, but they usually result in a better night’s sleep.