Conscience is hard work. So, don’t blame Jiminy Cricket, or Pinocchio, or even Walt Disney if you haven’t heard a small voice telling you exactly the choice to make in a situation where there is likely more than one answer. Turns out it’s up to you.
The good news is that you have everything you need to recognize and make the right choice when confronted with sometimes competing options. And when that happens, conscience gets the last word.
Popular culture recently gave us a couple of reminders of that truth in the just-ended year. The 2016 Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge told of a soldier who, for reasons of his faith, refused to carry or use firearms, and went on to become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor for service above and beyond the call of duty. In another example occurring on December 19, 2016, a member of the U.S. Electoral College departed from his predictable script and chose not to vote for the candidate he was expected to name. Presumably the judgment of conscience occurred because of information observed, discovered, or revealed after being named an elector, but before having to act by casting a vote. Both examples show us what is meant by the phrase “a resolved conscience.”
The road begins with recognizing that conscience is a judgment. It’s the decision you come to when you’ve looked at the various sides of a question, weighed the evidence, consulted the experts whose opinions carry weight, including your own beliefs and principles. It comes about as the result of a process not unlike what happens in a court room. Depositions are gathered. People tell of what they have seen or experienced, or read or studied, of how it looks or looked to them. Analyzing all that varied input, all the parties of the trial go to work to make a case for what they are presenting, what at that point they believe is the truth of a situation. How it really is, versus how it looks on the surface.
That’s not as easy or automatic as it sounds. It takes some courage, maybe a jot or two of humility. I’m hoping I’m not the only one who tends to listen most carefully to the people, the media, the preachers, the pundits who agree with my current or favorite point of view. A piece of advice I read at the time or our recent (interminable) campaign and elections came as a happy illumination. Make sure not to isolate yourself from “the other point of view.” Listen respectfully and let it add a dose of honesty to your own. You don’t have to adopt it as your own, but it will help you resolve your own conscience so that it includes respect for those who come down on a different side of an issue. So in those battlefield scenes or in that gathering at a state’s designated voting place, we can take it that there were serious differences of opinion that made individuals take different paths, both or all choices made in “good faith.” Individuals weighed similar evidence and reached different resolutions.
That process of resolving is a key ingredient of a judgment of conscience you can trust. Unless and until you come to that key point of “resolution” you’ll be standing on shaky ground. An unresolved or doubtful conscience can’t support a good, ethical or moral decision. Or think of it this way: you want to get to the top shelf of the bookcase or the highest shelf in the closet. As you plan your path, would you want to count on a one-legged ladder? You tell me. That’s why the experts on ethics warn that a doubtful or unresolved conscience can never lead to a morally acceptable path to action. If the process of an honest look at the evidence leaves you with a “maybe,” you proceed at your own risk.
Two other bits of wisdom about conscience are the “two Cs.” If you want to be guided by your conscience, don’t copy and don’t condemn. Nobody else’s conclusions or resolutions can provide you the support you need. And don’t be quick to conclude that another person’s or group’s honestly resolved conscience should be discounted or disrespected.
With all due respect for Jiminy Cricket, each one of us is equipped to be a much more successful, supporting actor in our own life stories. No charming insect on our shoulders. But a really authoritative voice. So, farewell, Jiminy. Hello, the voice of conscience we are prepared to tune up by a lot of hard, rewarding work that delivers peace of mind and the courage of our own well considered convictions.
Top photo from Bigstock.
Mel Gibson is back with a vengeance, directing a World War II drama based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who goes into battle without a rifle and ends up saving the lives of 75 soldiers. Gibson, who won an Academy Award for directing Braveheart, has not directed a film since 2006’s Apocalypto. After a stellar career as both an actor and director, in 2010, Gibson suffered a series of public meltdowns. He was dropped by his talent agency and essentially treated as a persona non grata. Hollywood, however, loves a good comeback story and this film could help Gibson restart his career. While not rising to the level of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge is a riveting wartime drama that celebrates an unexpected and unconventional hero.
Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) served in World War I and emerged with a medal and a damaged psyche. After watching several of his friends die horrible deaths, he returned home and began drinking and abusing his wife. “You didn’t know him before the war,” his wife, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), says in his defense. When Tom threatens Bertha with a gun, their son, Des (Andrew Garfield), manages to take the weapon away and turn it on his father. That event becomes a tipping point in Des’s life, leading him to embrace his religion as a Seventh Day Adventist, eschew all forms of violence, and vow never again to touch a gun.
Teresa Palmer and Andrew Garfield
Des discovers his medical talent when he saves a man’s life by using his belt as a tourniquet. While at the hospital, he meets an attractive nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he vows to marry. Initially reluctant, Dorothy is won over by Des’s “aw-shucks” charm and his admirable adherence to his religious values.
After his brother, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists – over the objections of his father – Des feels obligated to do his part, signing on to become an Army medic. Des winds up in a boot camp where each recruit is required to carry a rifle and learn how to use it. While Army medics are tasked to treat those injured, they also carry weapons for protection. Des’s refusal to even touch a rifle is viewed as placing not only himself, but also his fellow soldiers at risk. An inflexible military system threatens him with a court martial. The way he escapes conviction is unusual, but, from the film’s point of view, satisfying.
Des’s Courtmartial Hearing
Des’s unit is sent to Okinawa, where a battle is raging on a rocky, desolate plateau dubbed Hacksaw Ridge. Taking the territory would allow the Allies to score an important victory against the Japanese, but the battle will be bloody and costly. Remember the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, showing Americans landing on the beaches in Normandy? That scene was mild compared with the relentless battlefield carnage we see in Hacksaw Ridge. Limbs are blown off, guts spilled, and Japanese soldiers incinerated with flame throwers. In the midst of this human destruction, Des continues his mission, treating and rescuing as many soldiers as he can. With each wounded soldier he finds, he does what he can, applying tourniquets to staunch bleeding, administering morphine to deal with pain. He drags each wounded soldier to the lip of the ridge and slowly lowers them to the ground below using a rope, that, while knotted improperly, still does the trick. Running on fumes, he returns again and again to find someone he might have missed, praying to God to give him strength to save “just one more.” Garfield’s performance is intense. While we know that he will survive (the real Des went on to become the only CO to receive the Medal of Honor), each time he risks going back to the battlefield, we fear for his safety.
The soldiers Des saves are transported to the camp’s medical facility. Des’s commanding officer, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), is shocked to see so many from his platoon alive and being treated. When he asks one soldier, Milt Zane, nicknamed “Hollywood” (Luke Pegler), how he got out, he credits Des. Others repeat the medic’s name. When the final tally comes in, Des has saved 75 soldiers. Someone once viewed as a coward for his reluctance to carry a weapon winds up being the hero of the battle.
There are memorable performances among the supporting cast. Vince Vaughn, in a departure from his comic roles, is effective as Sergeant Howell, who bullies Des, hoping he will drop out, but winds up being saved by the medic. Weaving’s Tom Doss is a tragic figure who redeems himself and repairs the relationship with his wife and family. Seen through a present-day lens, Tom has PTSD, and Weaving’s poignant performance allows us to see his suffering. As a soldier called “Smitty,” Luke Bracey has a touching scene with Garfield. Sharing a foxhole, Smitty, who was once Des’s nemesis, finds he has a lot in common with the CO, a surprising friendship formed in the midst of war.
Hacksaw Ridge opens nationwide November 4, 2016.
Photos credit: Mark Rogers courtesy of Lionsgate