“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”
Whether Edmund Burke or someone before him first said it is a matter of some debate. But, we all recognize the statement.
It’s a weighty sentiment for weighty times, one often referenced in the context of the worst atrocities inflicted on mankind. But, there’s another way to think of this: Every act of good, no matter how small, isolated, or even invisible, is a victory for all that is right.
On Sunday, my wife and I saw “Unbroken,” the Angelina Jolie film based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, telling the incredible real-life tale of World War II veteran and prisoner of war Louis Zamperini. The American-born son of Italian immigrants, Zamperini was a gifted runner who competed in the 1336 Berlin Olympics, but made his next trip overseas with the United States Army as a second lieutenant and bombardier on a B-24. With his athletic feats as a prelude, the film takes viewers through the horrors Zamperini experienced with fellow soldiers during 47 days adrift in a raft in the South Pacific and two years of severe torture at the hands of his Japanese captors. Ultimately, though, his is the triumphant story of an indomitable spirit.
Like any book brought to the big screen, critics quibble over parts left in, parts left out, and whether the film tells the whole story. But, for me, it was an impactful telling of a tale mirrored in the sagas of more than 16 million of the Greatest Generation who sacrificed, suffered, witnessed unspeakable horrors, and often made the supreme sacrifice to fight evil a half a world away.
Sunday night, during a wonderful meal, the conversation between my wife and I wandered across decades of delightful dining in our travels around the world. But, I stopped when it hit me that my European journeys were epicurean adventures in search of food, wine, and good times. Louis Zamperini and the generation of young men who went with him were there for something sobering and life-rending.
I don’t believe it is my duty to feel guilty for this juxtaposition. But, I know it’s my solemn obligation to be extremely and eternally grateful and to never forget. Stories like “Unbroken” are a necessary reminder. (It’s the same spirit of remembrance with which we should recall every civil rights pioneer on Monday honoring Dr. King.)
Today, I spent my morning with 40-something young people and fellow adults clearing a woodland nature trail in our community. Armed with pruners, lopers, axes, saws, and gloved hands, we hacked away at the vegetation choking out what will soon be a popular pathway through the woods and wetlands by a river. This was one of more than a half-dozen volunteer projects taking place across our county as a “day on” in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Warmed by a welcome January sun, and lost in quiet reflection, I spent my hours of service grasping and pulling at the invasive privet taking over the trail. I hacked, grabbed, yanked, lifted, and tossed through the morn. As I did, the impermanence of our progress was not lost on me.
It could seem futile cutting back privet, briars, and vines that will only grow back come spring. But, it isn’t. The woods will never be cleared of privet any more than the world will be purged of evil. But, taking a stand, making an effort, caring about the outcome and taking responsibility for it… These things matter — both large and small. In living, we cultivate our little space in the world — for good or evil, for beauty or drabness, for love or hate. The choice is ours.
I’ve not yet been called to arms to combat evil in the sometimes necessary wars of humanity. But, I am called. We all are.
And, I truly believe: Every act of good, no matter how small, is a victory for all that is right.