May each deserve a sprig of verbena

Last week you heard from my good friend Judge Andrew Guilford about his thoughts and involvement in the preparation of this column for the past 2½ years. And, as you have seen, he has been constructive and helpful in developing those thoughts, even though at times, he did not even agree with some of them. My wonderful wife, Dr. Grace Walker Gray, has sometimes been in the same situation, and has been equally helpful.

But that says a great deal about a person, and that is one reason why I would trust important decisions about the safety of my family and treasure to people like my wife and Guilford. In most things, people cannot reasonably decide for or against a position unless they understand exactly what that position is. In fact, it is arrogant to make decisions unless you understand all sides of the issues.

On a larger and quite different scale, Emma Darwin, Charles Darwin’s wife, was in the same situation. Devoutly religious, she watched as her husband slowly worked out his theories of evolution. And, even though she did not agree with the thrust of those theories, she was his strongest partner and admirer throughout that process, and that helped him to make those thoughts and theories more precise.

Well, it takes a strong person to help others formulate thoughts and ideas that are contrary to their own. Emma Darwin was one of those strong people. But, as the story goes, she was able to get in the last word once Charles Darwin died, when she told her children that although their father did not believe in God, God certainly believed in their father.

As a further illustration, my wife and I recently saw “Invictus,” which was about Nelson Mandela as he assumed the presidency of South Africa and attempted to change it away from its prior policies of Apartheid. The movie’s story centered upon his use of South Africa’s rugby team, and his conclusion that blacks should not force the white Afrikaners to change the team’s colors, even though those were the colors that represented the past oppression. Mandela argued that because they were victors in the struggle against Apartheid and in control of the government, the blacks should understand the present concerns of the former oppressors, and show them that they were welcome to remain as an important part of their country.

In this spirit, Mandela quoted the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, which, he said, had maintained him through the decades that he was imprisoned by those former oppressors. The poem ended with: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

A person, a society or a government that is the captain of its soul will have the strength to understand and even respect the opinions, views and feelings of others. It is only then that honest discussions can begin, compromises can be hammered out, and peace can have a chance to prevail.

In my view, that is probably the main reason why President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, although this award was flamingly premature. Rightly or wrongly, it was the perception of many people around the world that our government thought it had all of the answers, and was not willing to listen to anyone else, much less partner with them. But when that perception was changed, this was seen as furthering the cause of peace so substantially that Obama was given this prestigious award. Of course, now that he has received it, I deeply hope Obama goes on to earn it.

Finally, when I was in a literature class at UCLA, I was assigned to read a book called “The Unvanquished” by William Faulkner, which is one of the most pivotal books I have ever read. The story was set around the chaos of the Civil War, where people were mostly forced to be involved with violence to survive. But although the hero of the story, Bayard Sartoris, was well schooled in killing, he was able to rise above it, face his enemy alone and unarmed, and forgive that enemy for past serious wrongs that had been inflicted against him and his family.

Sartoris’ acts, which were found to be above courage, would break the cycle of violence for himself and his descendants. For such acts he was awarded a sprig of verbena. This is a flower with a lemony scent that is strong and almost impossible to forget. In the story, the verbena is equated with heroism and bravery that is so strong that it cannot be argued with or dissuaded, and it was awarded to Sartoris by the female lead of the story, even though she did not agree with his refusal to commit violence.

Now this is not to say that people should compromise their values and, of course, there also are times that people must fight to protect and defend what they hold dear. Thomas Jefferson understood this when he said that “Anyone who beats his swords into plowshares will soon be plowing for someone else.” So obviously there are many situations in life that call for courageous responses. But sometimes there are also some important occasions that call for something greater than courage — they call for verbena.

We are confronting one of those occasions now, because today our society has become unnecessarily punitive, particularly in the criminal justice system. As a direct result of that approach, our country leads the world in the incarceration of our people, which is enormously expensive both in financial as well as human terms. As such, we need people who are highly placed in government, who are strong enough to act counter to the “prevailing wisdom” that punishment is almost always the answer, and to earn a sprig of verbena.

Emma Darwin, Guilford, and Walker Gray, from what I have seen, you are truly the captains of your ship. And for your understanding, counsel and devotion to the free-flow of ideas and to the spokespersons of those ideas, I find you to be deserving of a sprig of verbena. And on a larger scale, Obama and Mandela, for your efforts and actions to take people and governments away from arrogance and the perpetuation of unnecessary violence, and for your meaningful attempts to bring people together in peace, I award you a sprig of verbena.

May each one of us in the course of both our personal and professional lives, be the captains of our ships as well, and, on the right occasions, be deserving of a sprig of verbena.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)