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Inspiring Moments--Abiding Memories

In 1989 the fear that most Californians live with every day became a reality. A severe earthquake hit the San Francisco area. It was rush hour, all power supplies were cut off, all the traffic signals stopped functioning. It was a potentially chaotic situation.

However, many observers (myself included) later recalled how people got out of their cars and took it upon themselves to direct the traffic at busy intersections, trying to restore some semblance of order. Far from becoming agitated and abusive towards other drivers, motorists waited patiently in their vehicles on the clogged freeways and streets, responding courteously to the efforts of those who were trying to get things moving again.

In some of the areas hit by the earthquake, power supplies were out for days, yet there were few reports of looting or other public disorder. In fact, many of those who were arrested during that time were people who had tried to cross police lines to help rescue friends they knew were still trapped in the rubble.

Very few people chose to take advantage of the situation, preferring instead to help each other without being asked-almost instinctively. Amid all the turmoil and disruption it was an inspiring, positive illustration of what is possible.

The same year there was a second such illustration during the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. It was a moment captured by photographers and became a symbol of the courageous opposition to a harsh and repressive regime.

One solitary protester stood defiantly in front of a column of government tanks, challenging them either to halt their advance, or to run him over.

The tanks halted in the middle of the road, just a few feet from this solitary human roadblock who had the courage to challenge those soldiers to recognize that what they were doing was wrong.

It takes similar courage to stand in the way of emotional rape. On the face of it there is little to be gained and probably a lot to lose; all we may achieve is to alienate ourselves from others, perhaps our friends, if we confront them about what they are doing.

Nevertheless, almost every one of us knows someone who is playing this game, who is using somebody else to some degree, and we should not wait until the situation becomes desperate before making our stand.

This one unidentified protester in Tiananmen Square was not alone in his bravery and determination to stand up for basic human values.

Unseen by the cameras, the officer commanding the leading tank also displayed immense courage. He decided that, whatever reprisals the military hierarchy or political bureaucrats might take, he could not be responsible for the cold-blooded murder of another individual. The brakes were applied.

During that period of protests, troops from the same geographical areas as the demonstrators also refused to open fire upon their countrymen. (The peaceful protests were eventually brought to a violent end by soldiers transported from bases in distant cantons, who had no natural empathy with the demonstrators.)

In these instances, the essential goodness of the individual came to the fore when it really counted-in adversity. It can serve us well, too, in opposing the spread of evil in society, whether that evil manifests itself as emotional rape or any other major threat to the social good.

We have to find the courage to get involved and to stand up to those who would use the best and highest human qualities, such as the ability to love and trust, for their own narcissistic gain.

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