This post is not about a fable. It’s real. See for yourself:
How does a 15-pound cat intimidate an alligator, that weighs up to 800 lbs.? What is going on in that tiny cat brain? What is going on in the alligator’s brain? Obviously the cat has no comprehension of how hopeless his cause is, and how incredibly mismatched he is against the scaly leviathan. He knows instinctively to avoid the snapping gator jaws, but he doesn’t flee. Does he see the alligator as an outsized and ugly cat? Or is he just instinctively being territorial and protecting his turf? Would he be afraid of anything?
On the other hand, what about the alligator? Is he so accustomed to prey desperately fleeing his approach that the cat, by virtue of his fearlessness and aggression must not be prey at all, but a new kind of competition in the food chain? The alligators clearly seem to reevaluate their assessment of the cat and apparently reach the conclusion that anything that fearless constitutes a danger best left alone. Apparently even in the rest of nature, the best defense against a bully is to stand up to him.
To me this video, while hilarious in its own right, is an excellent metaphor for life. It has been said that one man with courage constitutes a majority. There is physical courage, which for the purposes of this discussion we could attribute to this cat, and there is moral courage, the willingness to stand up and be heard when the outcome cannot be assured. At the very least one risks ostracism from the group, loss of friendship, love, approval, and resources.
For many years I was in the property management business, and in the early eighties I had the opportunity to take a bid tour of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. During part of the tour we were traveling through seven or eight stories of underground corridors, walking the equivalent of several city blocks through bleak, isolated and empty concrete hallways with no doors or windows. The contractor who was then responsible for the cleaning of the mammoth facility employed over a thousand cleaning staff, all members of New York unions, and some of those employees had served hard time in the federal penitentiary for murder one raps. I asked our tour guide, a bright, energetic young female supervisor for the contractor then cleaning the facility if she wasn’t afraid for her physical safety at times. What would she do if she happened to come across one of the “tough guys” on their staff in one of these isolated tunnels? I will never forget her answer: “The only supervisor who needs to be afraid is the supervisor who is afraid.”
Those who are truly fearless, or who give off the impression of being fearless, give pause to their opponents. They are so certain of themselves and their ability to handle whatever happens that they cause their adversaries to doubt themselves. This confidence, this certainty, can be in defiance of all the facts of reality and still carry the day. Power is as power thinks. I am speaking here more of the moral variety, the sense of the rightness of the ground we stand on, and the moral indignation that causes us to stand that ground against obviously hopeless odds. I am not speaking of those with the pseudo-courage of shouting from the center of the pack, mocking the outliers who dare to challenge the conventional wisdom. I am speaking of individuals who are willing to stand alone and speak alone because of their convictions.
How many of us in a classroom situation will wait to answer a question until we see other hands go up? How many of us will be whistleblowers when we are witnesses of wrongdoing, gross incompetence, negligence, or causing harm to others knowing we risk being severely penalized for doing so? How many of us have worked hard all our lives in order to prove we are just as good as the others in the group whose approval we need?
Acceptance into the group is a lot like peeing in your pants. At first it is warm and wet and vaguely reminiscent of the comforts of the womb from which we were forcefully expelled long ago. In time it chafes and demands change. Unattended to, we can become so inflamed we can no longer stand on our own.
So what am I afraid of? What does it take to make me tremble? What keeps me awake at night? In a world consumed with social media, where we all seek the comforts and reinforcement of our groups, how many of us can still remember who we are as individuals, what our core values are? More has been given to us than the cat or the alligator, so life demands more of us. We need to know more than who we are; to stand alone we need to know why. Are we a cat or an alligator? You can’t always tell by who or what is around us.
The highest level of courage is to understand the odds, feel the fear, and do the right thing anyway.
It doesn’t happen too often.