When There Are No Easy Answers
The year is 1989 … October. The place … East Germany. Tens of thousands of people are out in the streets demonstrating for freedom … and against the rule of the communist party. The Berlin wall is soon to come down, but, at this moment, the government is determined to stay in power by any means. A showdown is brewing.
Now, imagine you’re a young soldier doing an 18 month stint of compulsory service in the East German army.
On several nights, you’re ordered to get on a truck with a baton in your pocket, at the ready to go out and beat up protestors. And, at any moment, you could be ordered to wield a gun instead and shoot people.
The protestors are regular people, the folks you interact with in the community every day, including members of your family, your friends, your classmates from school. They aren’t your enemies. Quite the contrary. You wish you could be out there with them.
Every day, you’re faced with a horrifying question with no easy answer. Do you obey orders … or not? How far do you go? Can you bring yourself to do what they’re probably going to order you to do … and if not, what’s to become of you? You could be the one killed.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us have a hard time imagining having to face this kind of existential dilemma … but this is exactly the situation one of my clients found himself in as a young man in East Germany.
He’s now a successful speaker, coach, and trainer, building upon a very successful career spent developing and marketing some very well-known brands internationally. But back then, he was a hapless young soldier, caught in the crosshairs of world developments, facing a life and death decision … terrified. (You should hear this story when he tells it firsthand.)
As I’ve thought about this story over the time we’ve been working together, I’ve always come away with a couple of thoughts. The first one is simple … how blessed I’ve been to have been shielded from this kind of horrifying situation in my life and how blessed I am now to be able to live my life on my terms, making my own choices … doing what I want to do. And it really does make my problems seem pretty inconsequential.
The other is how important it is to know what values are really important to you and what you stand for … so important that it doesn’t matter what someone else tells you you’re supposed to do … or what someone orders you to do. When it’s crunch time, you do what’s right, even when the cost is high.
Easier said than done, and nobody can truly say how they’d behave in the kind of insane situation our young soldier found himself in, but the message is this. You have to know what really matters in life, so you can be true to yourself … always … in the face of dilemmas big and small.
Life has a way of presenting challenges to one’s integrity. Maybe not life and death challenges, but challenges nonetheless. How we handle those challenges really defines who we are as a person.
Fortunately for my client and friend, the wall came down and the crisis was quickly over before it came down to brass tacks. He didn’t have to face the ultimate test.
May we all be so lucky.
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