Acts of Conscience Change the World
We must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, to find that enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song. But in that dance, and in that song, the most ancient rites of conscience fulfill themselves in the awareness of being human.
—pablo neruda, Nobel lecture, December 13, 1971Shifting Sands
on goose rocks beach, a father dozes, baking in the sun, unsuspecting. He sprawls across a flat chaise longue, one hand hanging off but clutching a newspaper. His wife, on a beach chair next to him, reads while their three toddlers play at water’s edge. A floppy hat shields her face from the heat.
They look to be in their late thirties, and judging by their young kids, they’ve probably been married just over ten years. They are an attractive couple, either comfortable with the silence between them or resigned to it. Odds are he works outside of Boston. Goose Rocks is not well known enough to attract people from afar. This is his week to get a tan, overeat, nap in the afternoon. Whatever stresses had to be incurred to get here, to afford this respite, whatever strains may have frayed bonds of family or marriage during the rest of the year, they are forgotten now. Almost.
Down by the water both girls are working the sand with shovels and rakes. The son, about four, uses a bucket for a more ambitious construction project. His name, Carl, has been shouted several times. The water is frigid and all three children keep an eye on it to avoid the surprise of a cold splash. Their mom, about twenty-five yards away, doesn’t turn a page without checking on them. The waves are gentle, but just a few feet into the water there can be steep and sudden drop-offs. This worry is exclusively Mom’s. Dad moves not a muscle. His chest rises and falls in gentle slumber. A family has achieved equilibrium. Almost.
The boy and his bucket edge closer to the water, but when he feels the icy darts nip at his feet he retreats, catches his breath, charges, and retreats again. His mother pays closer attention but doesn’t abandon her book. Carl must hold all of the family’s excess energy like a reservoir, and while he spins and twirls, charges and retreats, and finds himself acclimating to the colder temperatures, he turns and faces the part of the beach where he remembers having left his parents. Mom’s nose is in the book. Dad dreams.
Carl has an idea. Carl edges a little deeper into the water. He runs and slips, but a fall is not a fall at that age, just the prelude to a bounce. His body twists in a shiver. He uncoils and then lowers the yellow bucket down to fill it up full. He looks back toward his parents. The idea is a mission now. He walks up the sand as quickly as he can without spilling any of the cold ocean he has captured. His white tummy juts out ahead of him. He calls “Daddy” but he is too far away and Daddy is no more conscious than the seaweed strewn across the sand.
When he reaches his father, Carl pulls the bucket back with both arms and makes the motion of dumping the water on his dad. Only he’s not looking in that direction, but instead at his mom. It’s a solicitation of sorts, a long-shot appeal up the chain of command. Mom puts one hand over her mouth to suppress a giggle. Carl, bucket poised, looks over at Dad and then at Mom again. Dad snores on. Mom’s eyes dance. Permission granted.
Carl cannot believe his good luck. He steps up closer on a mound of sand, goes through the motions again, and balks. He is giving his mother one last chance, as if he intuitively understands there is a larger dynamic at work.
Mom all but freezes, careful now, unprepared to step further past the line she has already crossed. Carl correctly takes silence as assent and hurls the icy water on top of his sleeping father.
“My God!” The father jumps out of the chaise longue as if jabbed by an electric cattle prod. He screams in shock and agony, and his head rolls around on his neck as if searching to see the snake that may strike again before the snake sees him. Calming, he shakes himself like a poodle that didn’t like its shampoo. When he sees Carl standing in front of him with the empty bucket, he is disbelieving. When he realizes his wife has been sitting next to him the entire time, he is not only disbelieving but furious.
“Did you see that he was going to do that?” he shouts incredulously. His jaw juts and the rest of his body leans in the same direction, both hands hanging down at his sides.
His wife bears no trace of the mischievous giggle now. Her eyes open wide to show her surprise. She is on the verge of taking offense at being unjustly accused. It is what Siskel and Ebert used to call Oscar-worthy.
“No. Of course not.”
Her husband surveys the scene and glares, defeated by the absence of a smoking gun. He will have to accept whatever truce is eventually proffered. Awake only moments, he finds himself at stalemate.
“I swear I didn’t,” she protests.
From my spot on the beach a few yards away it’s hard to ascertain malice. I doubt she woke up this morning planning this. More likely she made a bad choice in a split second, regretting it even before the water left the bucket. Now she is too flustered or insecure to own up to it and takes refuge in the lack of fingerprints.
Maybe all of this is a complete aberration. Every family has moments when the window shade snaps up at the wrong time, revealing what is their business and theirs alone. Outsiders interpret at their own peril. But it seems the sands have shifted under all three of them. The water by itself, no matter how cold, creates no permanent harm. But even the smallest deception makes the road to the next one that much smoother. Mom has her guilt, Dad has his doubts, and Carl knows something about the two of them that he doesn’t really want to know. There is no longer an unbroken line between Carl and his parents, but a triangle instead.
Carl and his family still have half a week left of their vacation. The gentleness of Goose Rocks Beach will surely reassert itself. The tides will come and go on schedule. The waves will never cease. The sun will shine just as brightly tomorrow. Almost.
Everyone Seeks Change
i have come to a place you’ve probably never heard of to write about how acts of conscience can change the world.
It is a place called Goose Rocks Beach.
America has 88,363 miles of tidal shoreline. This remote and rocky little stretch in down-east Maine comprises three of them.
I don’t think it is an accident that I chose this place, or an accident that I decided to write about acts of conscience after years of experiencing nature’s reassuring rhythms amid such quiet and isolation. One’s inner voice is easier to hear in the stillness here than in any place I’ve ever been.
Changing the world has been a lifelong ambition of mine. I am almost embarrassed by how immodest and foolhardy that sounds. But I am not alone. Changing the world may not be an ambition everyone shares, but the differences between people on this are of degree more than of principle.
Almost everyone seeks change in some way large or small. We want better schools for our children, safer streets, and cleaner parks. We work out to change our weight or shape. We make New Year’s resolutions, read best-selling how-to books, watch Oprah and Dr. Phil. We vote, volunteer, and contribute to charity. We write op-eds and letters to the editor. Mothers organize against drunk driving. Neighbors lobby for quieter airports. We create art. We pray for peace. In countless other ways unique to our species, we are driven to create change. The longer and harder we pursue it, the more important it becomes to understand where it begins, what precipitates it, and what kind of actions can be leveraged to greatest consequence.
When it comes to creating change, I’ve pursued many and varied avenues: government service, presidential politics, business, philanthropy, humanitarian aid, social entrepreneurship, and even writing books.
I worked for two United States senators, both Democrats and both unsuccessful candidates for president. I started a nonprofit antihunger organization, Share Our Strength, which has grown to be one of the largest in the nation. For nearly two decades, I helped build other community service organizations, like City Year, which President Clinton used as a model for AmeriCorps, and the Echoing Green Foundation. I launched a for-profit consulting firm, Community Wealth Ventures, to help nonprofits be more sustainable by creating their own wealth instead of redistributing the wealth of others. I’ve taught at universities and business schools. And I’ve traveled the globe to assess the needs of children, whether they are victims of famine in Africa or of malnutrition in the United States, granting funds to build food banks, dig wells, staff hospitals, and support advocacy.
Each avenue afforded the opportunity to make vital contributions. But each also had its limitations. As the clock ticked and the years passed, as the reality of finite time and money grew clearer, I felt an ever-growing desire to identify and understand the means of leveraging the greatest change—not incremental or evolutionary but catalytic change that could inspire and move millions and could address problems on the scale on which they exist. Problems like hunger, poverty, and illiteracy that were not going to yield to the solutions that came from charity or even government.
The more I thought about those we associate with sweeping change—Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson—the more I realized the central role that acts of conscience played in their achievements. They derived their power not from political office or great wealth but from their willingness to abide their own conscience, even when they were in the minority.
We tend to think that creating change requires an array of external resources and support: acts of Congress, great sums of money, large standing armies, technology, vast research capabilities, or powerful lobbyists, relationships, and networks. And of course they all have their place. But often the most sweeping change results from a single individual with none of those at his or her command but, instead, with the courage to follow his or her conscience. When Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world,” he acknowledged conscience as the great equalizer. We all have the same ability and the same responsibility to bring about change.
Arthur Miller, in discussing why he wrote The Crucible, his play about the Salem witch trials that was an allegory for the McCarthy era, explained that based on his study of history, “It occurred to me that as improbable as it might seem, there were moments when an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling.”
This is a book of stories about such moments. They are not essays with a pronounced point of view or op-ed columns reflecting a certain ideological embrace. Rather, they are stories in the old-fashioned sense, about mostly ordinary people who were capable of having an extraordinary impact when they found themselves in situations they neither sought nor asked for. The people in these stories run the gamut from washerwomen to military heroes, from sports champions to artists of all kinds, all of whom have only one element in common, the call of conscience. They are presented for the reader to experience in his or her own way: whether you are provoked, challenged, entertained, or inspired, the stories are here to draw your own lessons from, not mine. Conscience, by definition, is personal. A choice that is a no-brainer to one may be another’s moral quandary. The meaning of each story that follows is something only you can decide.
Moments You Don’t Get Back
every life includes pivotal moments, roads taken or not, choices made on reflex rather than reflection. What makes such circumstances pivotal is that although their consequences may be long-lasting or even permanent, their specifics can’t be anticipated or prepared for. Your reaction can’t be scripted or calculated in advance. The choices you make depend upon and reveal your true character, both at the same time. Former U.S. senator Bob Kerrey, referring to a horrific personal experience during Vietnam on a night innocent women and children were mistakenly killed, describes these as “the moments you don’t get back.”
We all struggle at times to know what to do to seek and abide our conscience—when right and wrong are not black and white, when heart and head speak with different voices, when our intentions and our interests are not aligned. If you believe that the outcome of these struggles affects the course of your life, and the lives around you, then this book is for you.
If you believe that there are times and places when the choice an individual makes to speak or be silent, to eat or fast, to remain seated or to stand up in a crowd, to stare and remember or to walk on by and forget, can be as powerful as a president’s command, a congressional appropriation, or a military incursion, then this book is for you.
This book is for you if your profession is rewarding financially but not spiritually, or if you’ve ever worried that your career and your conscience conflict.
This book is for you if you are a parent, hopeful your children will grow up to do the right thing even if no one is watching.
This book is for you if you question whether the countless small decisions and choices you make each day add up to a larger judgment about your life’s meaning.
Finally, this book is for you if you believe that quiet, often solitary acts of conscience have echoes louder than the original sound; that individual acts have the potential to trigger large public consequences and continue to inspire others from generation to generation; that such acts bring rewards to the individual, that unforeseen benefits accrue, that one gains more than was sacrificed, and that there is a transformative power and richness to a life so lived.
Such acts of conscience are often, though not always, separate and distinct from public leadership or the calculated decisions, however courageous, of presidents and prime ministers. They cut across all walks of life—sports, business, family, religion, art, public affairs—and are performed by ordinary people who rise to occasions in extraordinary ways. They reinforce the fundamental premise of Share Our Strength and so many other community-serving organizations: that one person can make a difference.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Light of Conscience by Bill Shore. Copyright © 2004 by Bill Shore. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.