A number of years ago I encountered the story of Edith Cavell for the first time and was strongly tempted to write a book about her. The book plan got sidelined, but the story has stayed with me. Edith Cavell was an English nurse at the turn of the 20th century. Professional nursing was still relatively new, and trained nurses and nursing schools were few and far between. Because Cavell had spent time in Belgium in her younger days, she was invited to go there to help start that country’s first professional nursing school.
It was while she was engaged in this project that World War I began, and it wasn’t long before her nursing school was recruited as a full-fledged hospital for Allied soldiers. Belgium, sitting between Germany and France, was the scene of heavy fighting as the German army advanced. Cavell’s hospital was soon filled with wounded English soldiers, and when they recovered sufficiently, Cavell smuggled them to neutral Netherlands so they could return safely to their units, or to England. Over 200 soldiers evaded capture by the German army through her efforts.
For this “crime,” Cavell was eventually arrested by the Germans and tried for treason – and executed by firing squad, despite frantic, international, diplomatic efforts to prevent her sentence from being carried out.
Before facing the firing squad, Cavell famously said, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Looking back through 100 years, we can speculate about the types of courage that may have motivated Nurse Cavell in her choices. Becoming a nurse at all in that day was a risky move – it wasn’t something “nice girls” did. But she did. Then simultaneously running a hospital and a smuggling operation would have required a degree of fortitude and executive management that somewhat boggles the mind. Intellectual courage would have enabled focus and adaptability. We know that she was a devout member of the Anglican church, and it seems fair to say that spiritual courage – that which fortifies us with a sense of purpose and meaning and makes forgiveness possible – was a significant part of her makeup. (She was the daughter of a vicar, and raised with an ethic of sharing). Moral courage was clearly there, as well as the physical courage that nursing requires, especially wartime nursing. She must also have had a very strong internal locus of control to believe that she was capable of effecting change amid the chaos of war, and to act so purposefully in on that conviction.
Much beyond that is difficult to surmise. She was known as a private woman, reserved and formal toward her students and patients. During her court-martial she made no attempt to disavow her activities, and she reportedly went to the firing squad with composure. She was clearly a woman of great courage.
It is important to us on Lion’s Whiskers, however, to make it clear that courageous action is not limited to life-and-death risks such as the ones Edith Cavell took. We have every reason to admire her courage, but we can’t let it convince us that because we haven’t done anything like this and faced a firing squad, we have not shown courage. We are all capable of courage, because the risks we face are proportionate to our capacities and our circumstances. If a teen speaks out against a popular bully and risks ostracism, it is no less courageous because there’s no firing squad in the offing. A social “firing squad” can be devastating, and the number of teens who commit suicide because of it are tragic evidence.
So let Edith Cavell inspire, but not intimidate.
You can read more about Edith Cavell here on the website dedicated to her memory.