There is nothing harder to regain, once lost, than trust
Profiles in Courage, for which then Senator John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize, was required reading in my high school. And in the '60s, after Kennedy's assassination, it was turned into a weekly TV program, around which the Rosenblum family regularly gathered on Sunday evenings to learn the story of another profile in courage, usually a political figure, as in the original book.
I enjoyed imagining myself in the place of the heroes, like Edmund Ross, the Kansas senator who cast the decisive vote to acquit President Andrew Johnson on articles of impeachment, and said of the experience, "I literally almost looked down into my open grave." That description has stuck in my mind for over 50 years (and not just for the familiar substitution of "literally" for "figuratively," its opposite).
Thinking back to those days, what chiefly strikes me is how naïve I was. Yes, I already knew that I did not suffer from an abundance of physical courage. But I had no trouble imagining that I would always rise to the occasion and act morally where it was only a matter of money or public contumely.
No doubt I was right about my assessment of my physical courage. While working with Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum on Lieutenant Birnbaum, never once did I imagine myself bravely charging forward at Omaha Beach in Normandy, oblivious to being a sitting duck for the German snipers above.
But how naïve I was about other forms of courage. Little did I imagine then how hesitant many of us are to "take a stand" at the cost of a good job, especially if one has a family to support. Life is filled with constant tests, and we are fortunate if we pass even the ones that only involve foreswearing a few shekels or suffering some small embarrassment.
I JUST SENT OFF THE COMPLETED manuscript of a biography of Rabbi Meir Tzvi Schuster ztz"l. And I want to share a vignette of what constitutes a temptation for a biographer. In trying to assess the impact of Rabbi Schuster, I wanted to make the point that his influence was certainly far, far greater than we imagine, because we know little of the impact that a single class in a yeshivah or seminary might have had on those who did not stay for a very long time thereafter. And I had a perfect story to demonstrate the point.
Here's the story: A young woman staying at the Heritage House women's hostel for Jewish travelers, which Rabbi Schuster created in the mid-'80s, agrees to go to one class at Neve Yerushalayim with a madrichah (counselor) from Heritage House. Unfortunately, the only class that's available when they arrive is a somewhat technical discussion of the laws of returning lost objects. The madrichah is distraught that the class was not on some subject of more life-changing potential, especially when the young woman in question heads off shortly thereafter in pursuit of "spirituality" in India, which had been her original plan.
One day, the spiritual seeker is walking down the street in India with her guru, and he stops to pick up a wallet on the pavement. He extracts the money in the wallet and then discards it.
His companion asks him, "Aren't you going to make any effort to find the owner?"
He replies in the negative: "It was the owner's karma to lose it and my karma to find it."
The young woman remembers her class on hashavas aveidah (returning lost objects) at Neve Yerushalayim, and immediately returns to Jerusalem to study in seminary.
What a great story! I knew my readers would love it. Don't we all love stories of Hashgachah Pratis (Divine Providence) , with happy endings? And it certainly proved the point I wanted to make, perfectly.
But there is a condition for a great Hashgachah Pratis story: It must be true. Anyone can make them up, but made-up stories of Hashgachah Pratis sort of lose their power, do they not? And I wasn't sure this one actually happened. Something struck me as just a little too perfect.
I began my researches by contacting the author of the book in which it appeared, someone I have known for decades and both like and respect. The author pointed out that the story is introduced tentatively as something "I heard," and confessed to being unable to remember from whom it had been heard.
Then I called the well-known author Sara Rigler, my go-to person on all matters Indian, as she lived in India for at least a decade. When I told her the story, she agreed that the portrayal of the guru's behavior did not sound quite right to her.
Still, I could have justified inclusion of the story. It had, after all, already been published. But I quickly realized that the upside of doing so was very slight. Yes, it's a great story. But the biography of Rabbi Schuster is already filled with great stories. (I will confess that in my heart of hearts, I'm still hopeful that some reader of this column will contact me to tell me that the story is true and it happened to her.)
But more important than the slight upside was the massive downside. There is nothing harder to regain, once lost, than trust. Indeed, I wonder whether it can ever be fully regained at all. And once one has been found to be untrustworthy about one thing — even an exaggerated or poorly researched story — one will always be under suspicion about everything.
"Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus — False in one thing, false in everything," goes the old legal maxim. As an evidentiary rule, that principle is questionable, but it contains a large grain of psychological truth: If one can lie or distort about one thing, then one can do so about others.
President Trump's legal team would have been well-advised to remember that credibility is unitary. Once one starts spinning theories of CIA or FBI plots to steal the election, every other election fraud claim takes on the same level of credibility
Readers, whether of columns or biographies, will tolerate mistakes. Such mistakes are inevitable. Authors are fallible human beings, and they often rely on the memory of other fallible human beings about events that occurred long ago. But readers do want to know that care has been taken to verify, to the extent possible, and that mistakes, once discovered, will be corrected. Once an author loses the confidence of his readers in his honesty, he has lost everything.
WHEN I FIRST THOUGHT ABOUT this vignette, I viewed it as an example of authorial courage (albeit a very teensy-weensy amount of courage). Thus the opening reference to Profiles in Courage.
But upon further reflection, I now see it as more a reflection of the appropriate use of cowardice. I have been blessed with a very acute ability to view the potential negative results of any action or improper word, just as long as my censoring devices chip in before my impetuosity. And in this case, there was plenty of time for further reflection.
Well-developed and properly deployed cowardice may be an even more valuable tool in resisting many of life's temptations than courage — or perhaps it is inseparable from the courage to do what is right. In this case, the trivial gain simply paled in comparison to the loss of the crown of a good name. And for me, the latter loss was fully tangible.
Isn't that what Chazal meant when they counseled: Consider the loss from the aveirah (transgresson) compared to its gain?