A Case of Moral Courage

By Maureen McKane, LCSW

To do the right thing, may look easy, but it is often an act of moral courage.

In my office people are continually asked to do the hard, the right thing. It’s no use coming in if you don’t believe your life can improve, which, by definition, means change. To get over fears and anger requires work. Read moral courage. Read face yourself. My days are full of the morally courageous.

A gentleman I know has been chasing his own tail for years. Addicted to alcohol, he has done a number of hurtful and damaging acts. Until recently, his conversations with me usually entailed end runs around the shame that he feels. I sometimes added to the problem, letting him get by with not facing, when my courage failed. I could not imagine his horror looking in the mirror and seeing a betrayer, a man who had caused great pain to 3 wives and 3 children. Week by week we muddled along, trying to get him to want to do the right thing and to believe he can live a truly decent life.

I’ll call him Sam. He is a college graduate, a polite, well-dressed man in his 50’s with a lucrative work history. He is, in fact, a decent man when he’s sober. When drunk, he cheats people, lies, drives into trees and creates general havoc with others’ lives. He’s sobered up and repented many times over the years. He came to me for treatment of his depression. I had to wonder if I would be one more notch in his belt, one more well-meaning helper doomed to witness the next repeat.

People often surprise me. It is one of the delights of being a therapist. Sam came in last week to talk about the new conversations he’s been having with his wife. She wants him to go to big events with her extended family. He wants to avoid them altogether. Trying to convince her that these relatives truly see him as a despicable person, he found himself seeing himself in that light as well. Inexplicably, he told me he’d started pondering the truth: the relatives are right to be disgusted. Sam truly did do despicable acts while drinking, and he can’t any longer get by with all the boasting and ego-trips he’s been telling himself. That way of talking is suddenly foolishness to his ears.

Sam was not talking to me from guilt. He was not wallowing in mea culpas. Those are strategies he is known for. Relatives had witnessed his remorse and his err-no-more promises, knowing each time that he’d do it all again. Today he saw in a flash their irritated faces when he would beg forgiveness. He sees what they see. Taking it in, he is sad and inwardly honest. He realizes that he is both a decent man and a culprit, all in one. He knows that if he repeats his bad behaviors it will be intentional. He has a choice.

This is the essence of moral courage: to lay down one’s defense mechanisms, to replace ego with humbleness. To do this is to find life is not so tiring after all. Defending an ego is wearying. To stop is not exactly easy, but it is doable. Afterwards, you get to be no worse than those around you, but also no better. We’ll see what Sam does with his new insight.