It happened like this: "Mrs. Smith" delivered a package to an office in a distant county. As she had been instructed, she told the receptionist, "All the paperwork's already been filled out."
The receptionist nodded with a carefully bland expression. Instead of offering the usual clipboard full of forms, she simply responded, "Oh yes, we were expecting you."
"Mrs. Smith" handed over the package. A worker swiftly took it into a back room and "Mrs. Smith" left, never to see or be seen by the office staffers again.
And thus, on a sunny day in front of several unaware customers, illegal business was transacted. And Mrs. Smith walked out with a smile of satisfaction, well rewarded for her work.
A sale of illicit drugs? No. A delivery of fake ID for illegal aliens? Not that. A transaction in unpapered guns, untaxed cigarettes, unprescribed pharmaceuticals, laundered money, pirated software? Nope. Not even close. The "package" was, however, stolen goods.
It was an abused dog. The delivery (to a vet's office) was the poor animal's second step into the animal-rescue underground, where it would be nursed to health and ultimately placed in a well-screened home. The first step came when "Mrs. Smith" trespassed on private property, tranquilized the terrified animal, unhooked the chain that had rubbed its neck bloody, boosted the critter into the back of her truck, and sped off with it .
What the local sheriff wouldn't do ("We don't have any budget for animals ..."), somebody had to. It was a moral duty.
But wait. We're not just talking boring Goodie Two-Shoes kind of duty here, the kind where the main reward is feeling insufferably smug about what a fabulously superior person you are. Committing that little crime was a major rush. Risking getting caught by drunken dog abusers was an adrenaline high that beat the heck out of experimenting with drugs, a thrill right up there with accepting a teenage dare to walk exposed bridge girders at midnight. Stealing a dog -- to save its life -- was at least as good as sex and better than most rock n roll since Keith Moon trashed his last hotel room.
"Mrs. Smith's" deed was a pretty mild form of lawbreaking. For sheer drama and commitment, it's nothing compared to other acts of gonzo animal rescue that go on around the country every day -- in which women (nearly always women) break into locked sheds to rescue starved and beaten dogs, face down amphetamine-whacked abusers who've been using puppies as pit bull bait, and surrender their life savings to tend to sick or injured animals.
"Mrs. Smith's" level of risk was nothing compared to the dangers faced by the Poles who hid Jews in World War II (death for their entire family if they were caught). It was nothing compared to the terrors braved today by North Koreans who dare speak out against their government (potential slavery and torture for three generations of their family). It's not even in the league with the danger faced by American activists who deliver medical marijuana to sufferers of MS, AIDS, or cancer. The penalty they face might as well be determined by spinning a wheel of fortune. It might be anything from a slap on the wrist to decades in prison for "conspiracy" or "racketeering" -- whatever the justice system wills on that day.
Stealing the dog was just a tiny little deed that saved a tiny little life, of very little consequence to anybody. The universe will spin on unheeding. No angel choirs will sing praise. The world won't be a noticeably more humane place. One happy Fido doesn't make a difference to anybody -- except, of course, to Fido himself. And to some new family who gains the joy of his presence and the satisfaction of coaxing him out of his miasma of pain and fear.
But what if each little Fido-soul in the world had a rescuer? What if each act of abuse -- to human or animal -- was halted by some brave and unyielding protector? And what if every injustice everywhere was opposed with such fervor that millions of people -- not acting as a group, but as conscious, conscience-driven individuals -- were willing to go to jail, lay down their lives, risk everything they owned rather than obey or tolerate an unjust law or unjust enforcement?
Big dramatic pause with swelling orchestral music.
Well, that ain't gonna happen, of course. It's all "somebody else's problem." We "don't want to get involved." "What can an ordinary little person do, after all?" "It's not my responsibility." "We should leave it to the proper authorities." "I'd like to help, really I would. But ..." Yada yada yada.
So okay, the universe will go on spinning toward entropy and destruction. But what if you -- just you alone -- broke the law when you knew the law was wrong? What if you -- just you alone -- took risky-but-principled action when others wouldn't? What if you defied danger to do what you knew to be right -- even if you believed you had very little chance of "changing the world"? (Sorry, I'm beginning to sound like Broadway Don Quixote here: "To fight the unbeatable foe ... to run where the brave dare not go." But you understand.)
Since this is a column about freedom and the Outlaw life, what if you broke the law when the law got in the way of freedom?
The point is this: Defying the law in obedience to a higher cause (or defying prevailing opinion or social custom, which can be even more risky) isn't merely a necessity for free individuals, as I've argued tirelessly, and perhaps tiresomely, over the years. Defiance -- whether in the cause of freedom or some other form of humanitarianism --can be an adventure. It can liven up our otherwise dull days. So if we can't do something brave and principled because it's the right thing to do or because we think we can make a huge difference, then let's do it because it's more stimulating than watching TV. More adventurous than paintball at midnight. More sexy than Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. And better than any rock ín roll since Jim Morrison either died in a bathtub or was secreted away by space aliens to a monastery in Tibet, depending on how you see the matter.
If you're new to this sport of brave defiance, or if you're feeling overwhelmed by the number or the daunting size of all the wrongs that need righting, then reduce the task to simple steps:
- Don't even imagine that you're going to save the world. Do this for yourself.
- Pick a single cause, incident, principle -- whatever -- that requires risk and personal integrity to defend. It might be political, spiritual, or social. But pick something that matters to you deep in your heart -- not something you believe should matter to you because your mother or your church or anyone else says so. (That way lies only brittleness and bitterness.)
- Decide to take a single action in your chosen, deeply held cause -- action that doesn't merely "do good," but that puts your reputation, security, financial well-being, or life on the line in some way. If the cause you've chosen can be fully addressed by sending a check or doing a few hours of conventional volunteer work, then you've picked the wrong cause for his exercise. More cautious folks can take care of that cause. Or you can take care of it at another time. Today you're taking on what others fear to tackle.
- Choose an action that's small and handleable -- even if the evil you're opposing is as huge and formless as a police state or a culture. ("Mrs. Smith" wants to save every abused dog in the world; one at a time will have to do. Joe Hacker wants every privacy-stealing database monkeywrenched, but will settle for massaging the one he can get his hands on.)
- Determine to approach this chosen action in a way that will best ensure that you carry the action through, despite its risks and difficulties (Think: My boss assigned me this task. Think: All I have to do is X, and then I can have a chocolate bar. Think: If I can do 50 bench presses, I can do X. Think: If I don't, who will?)
- Do it with panache. Do it with boldness, flair, and style (even if you're the only person who ever sees or knows about the deed). Remember, you're not some mealy-mouthed little do-gooder here. You're a resistance fighter, a rebel, a privateer, a bold and daring scofflaw. James Dean. Errol Flynn. Han Solo. And you're doing it for fun.
Some cautions and a paradox. If you're going to charge in where the brave dare not go (or where angels fear to tread), you have a personal responsibility to make sure you're actually doing good and not merely meddling in other people's business. Here's the paradox: Although you're doing this risky deed entirely for your own sake, the whole thing works only if the goal you hope to achieve is actually beneficial. You don't have to achieve the goal (because remember, the real purpose here is to get the adrenaline rush from making the attempt, taking the dare). But you do have reach beyond your everyday life with the potential to make the world better.
If you're just sticking your nose into somebody's business because you feel like others can't be trusted to run their own lives, and that they should do things the way you want them done, then you're a jerk and there's no thrill in that.
Also, this should not -- must not -- be an act of revenge. Revenge is almost always self-serving (despite our attempts to give it a high moral tone) and produces nothing positive. Act for what you love, not against what you hate.
Aggressive violence is also a no no. That only makes us twins of our enemies.
You should be aware -- in at least a general way -- of the degree of risk you're taking on. In the past I've also recommended that people gauge the potential effectiveness of any risky actions. But in this case "effectiveness" isn't determined by whether you succeed or fail, but by what happens within.
So think -- breathe deep --act -- then enjoy the rush.
Now, once the adrenaline has worn off, here's the real reason to take a risk in a good cause: Because he who dies in integrity wins.
Do you doubt that? Take the example of St. Francis of Assisi -- a man whose anarchic, loving, risk taking, unconventional spirit is well worth emulating.
By just about every external standard, St. Francis's life was a failure. Although he was much-beloved for his personal commitment and charm, virtually everything he tried to accomplish in his life came to nothing. His one concrete achievement in the world's eyes -- establishment of three institutional religious orders -- was actually something he didn't wish for (he wanted nothing but an informal fraternity whose minimal rules were derived from the Gospel). To add insult to injury, at the end of his life he helplessly watched -- bedridden by painful, disfiguring, humiliating illness -- as his order of brothers began to become corrupt with power-seeking and bureaucracy.
Yet we still know him 800 years later as one of the greatest and most beloved of men. Why? His recent biographer, Donald Spoto puts it like this in the book Reluctant Saint:
[Holiness] is at its deepest level, a condition of spiritual integrity that always upsets public presumptions and counters the selfishness and madness of power that strangle so much peace in the world. ... The true mark of holiness is the character of life that ... extends beyond the narrow frontiers of itself, its own comfort and concerns ...
St. Francis defied both the prevailing spiritual views and social mores of his day. He -- born to be rich, spoiled, and rakishly sensual -- defied the scorn of family, community, and materialistic Church officials to follow a truer path. He risked everything. In worldly terms, he also lost everything, including his family, his wealth, his health, his most cherished dreams, and in the end his harmonious community of brothers. But where it matters -- in the spirit -- he gained everything.
"To fight for the right without question or pause. To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause." Don Quixote and St. Francis were really onto something. Maybe we're not as big as they. But do we want to make ourselves as small as curled-up worms merely so that we can remain safe? No way.
We who live in integrity win.