Four Chaplains, Four Lifejackets, and Courage
Courage was my “One Word” for 2021. So I’ve been especially sensitive to mentions and illustrations of courage. Today’s date is another reminder of the face of true courage.
Seventy-nine years ago during WW2, four chaplains were traveling from New York to Europe on the SS Dorchester along with 900 other military passengers and crew. Freshly graduated from Army Chaplains School, they were journeying to their new assignments. But on February 3, a German submarine torpedoed their ship.
The chaplains distributed lifejackets to the young soldiers. When the soldiers outnumbered the lifejackets, the four chaplains gave away their own. As the last of the lifeboats pulled away from the sinking ship, survivors floating in the frigid Atlantic Ocean could see and hear the four chaplains link arms while praying and singing.
Five years later, the United States Post Office honored these heroes with a commemorative stamp titled “These Immortal Chaplains.” In 1998, Congress designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day” to commemorate their sacrificial courage.
I wonder how I would respond in a similar crisis. Would I have the courage to act sacrificially? Or would I be more concerned with claiming one of those lifeboat seats? And I’ve come to realize my decision would not be forged in the moment of emergency, because character is not formed in crisis. Character is developed in the dailyness of life. It is forged in the wearying routines as well as uncertain circumstances. And it is refined by interactions with not just the pleasant people in our lives, but with the unlovable ones, too.
The character quality of courage is not something I can decide to manifest in the rush of the moment. Courage is a mindset I must claim long before it is needed. Come to think of it, isn’t this true of all the character qualities we aspire to? Kindness, forgiveness, patience—in each case, we find it easier to reflect these qualities if we’ve already made up our mind to own them long before they are actually required.
I need this reminder. To be reminded that the little decisions I make in determining my responses to trivial matters will form habits that will come naturally in a crisis. Am I where I want to be in the formation of these character qualities? Not even close. But I hope I’m moving in the right direction.
How about you?