Head's Notebook: Jackie's Eyes
Next to my desk hangs a photograph of Jackie Robinson that was taken during his fourth season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s a striking image. Robinson stands alone in front of the dugout, hands on his hips, chest out. He stares directly at the viewer, unsmiling.
The intensity of his gaze is remarkable; he appears both energized and exhausted, and his pride is unmistakable. We recognize this look of confidence and determination as a quality of a great athlete and also understand, in this case, that there is much more to the story. It’s an unsettling and inspiring photograph—not only because of all we know about what Cornel West has called Robinson’s “quest for dignity, excellence, and integrity,” but also for everything the image conveys about what it took for a real human being to undertake this heroic journey.
Jackie Robinson embodied moral courage in all its complexity. While it’s easy to oversimplify his story and see him as a one-dimensional, mythical figure, in reality he struggled mightily to maintain self-discipline and control his anger in the face of extraordinary adversity. In large part, this is what we admire about his character: he succeeded in spite of these emotions, not because he lacked them. Robinson’s actions played out on a very public stage, but they were the result of private, personal decisions that reflected his deepest beliefs and convictions.
Whatever form it may take, moral courage involves acting with intention and integrity when wrestling with ethical dilemmas, confronting dishonesty or injustice, or addressing the mistreatment of others. It’s not the same as self-righteousness, and it’s never strident or reckless. To the contrary, moral courage usually involves subordinating our self-interest and making personal sacrifices in order to uphold our values and our commitments. Being morally courageous is less a matter of grand public gestures and more about performing what Wordsworth referred to as “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.” Sometimes bold, large-scale advocacy is necessary—but in our daily lives, there are many more opportunities for us to act in ways that convey empathy, respect, and concern for those around us and to expect others to act in the same manner.
Acting with moral courage doesn’t require us to choose between being arrogant or being naïve. With effort and care, we can discern the best course of action and move forward with both confidence and humility, prepared to endure discomfort and accept the consequences, for the sake of what we believe is right. Each time I walk into my office, the image of Jackie Robinson reminds me that even when we are feeling an overwhelming sense of moral outrage, we can consciously choose to act with forbearance and civility, as well as unwavering determination and resolve. I see all of these things in Jackie’s eyes.