For better or worse, I am a person who is driven by principle. It probably comes from my childhood origins, growing up in a family where nothing was more important than integrity. Integrity, interpreted in my family of origin, meant to be who you said you were, no matter what. The archenemy of integrity is hypocrisy, to change one's face depending on one's current circumstances. I am making no claim to faultlessness or perfection, but I can tell you that when I find myself in a situation where I have been less than genuine I live to regret it. Even if no one else knows, I know. And that's an emotional killer. All that to say that I respect people who do things because of principle, although I am not foolhardy enough to believe in simplistic, moralistic ways that become more legalistic and enslaving than joyfully liberating.
Tonight three of my sons and I saw Valkyrie, the new movie in which Tom Cruise plays one of the key figures of an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the waning years of World War II. He is driven by principle, acts decisively and does what is, apparently, in the best interests of those beyond himself. His figure is contrasted by a weak-willed compatriot, an older general, who agrees philosophically with the need to depose Hitler but consistently crumbles in the face of difficult decisions. I hope it will be no spoiler (I'm assuming you know enough about history to know that the fifteen or more ill-fated attempts to assassinate the Fuhrer never were successful) to say something about one of the final scenes in the movie.
Cruise's character is talking with the older, halting general in the moments before their execution by firing squad. The pallid general is feebly looking at the ground, his lips quivering as he contemplates his imminent fate. Cruise calls to him and says, "Look them in the eye. That way they'll never forget you." As the general stumbles to his appointed place to die, his gaze is fixed upon his executioners. In the midst of his terror he makes what appears to be a brave last stand, even while trembling. Cruise's character is thrust to his death site and stands erect, brazen in the face of the death squad, unwilling to flinch, his strength of character and principle towering to the end. As the bullets pierce his body, dropping him to the ground, the camera focuses upon his impassive face, his one good eye (the other was lost in a previous battle for the Third Reich) reflecting his final goodbye with his family.
It is worth noting that not only is Cruise's character principled, but his spouse is as well. He is clear with her before setting out on his mission to depose Hitler that if it fails they will not again see each other. Without hesitation she affirms her understanding of the gravity of the situation and silently blesses his courage.
For whatever reason as I watched the final minutes of the movie and the closing credits, I recalled a conversation I had with our seventeen-year-old son Ben (or "Jimmy," his name changes day to day at his discretion) just yesterday. We were talking about some political situation in our troubled world, and I made mention that in many countries people are routinely rounded up and executed without provocation, or any kind of legal process. I went on to mention that in his country of origin, Guatemala, the record of human rights violations in the past thirty years has been horrific. And then he said, in his own inimitable way something like this:
"Yeah, dad. So Ricardo [also born in Guatemala and from the same orphanage from which we adopted Jimmy first] and me are really lucky, aren't we? Because if we were still in Guatemala we'd be living on the streets right now. And we might even have been killed by now." For him it was just that clear. Life in the United States with parents who love, provide and protect their children is superior to a culture in which an orphaned child is turned out the streets by the time they are fourteen. In Guatemala orphans who grow into adolescence have few choices. They might polish shoes at the airport, beg for quetzales (the basic currency) from strangers, prostitute themselves or participate in the drug trade.
As frustrated as I can become with my task as a parent, the brutal reality that Claudia and I have literally saved the lives of two children (hopefully others, too, but at least these two from a Guatemalan orphanage) pulls me back to one of my most basic principles in life: children matter and they need adults to care.
There are many times when I feel very disillusioned and dispirited in this adoptive parenting journey. It is harder than anything I have ever attempted in my life. But I am driven by principle, and I am either too stubborn or too far gone to quit. I can only hope that one day the principle that children matter and need adults who care will trump my frequent moments of despair.