Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.
Edith Louisa Cavell
Just after dawn on October 12, 1915, eight soldiers raised their rifles and took careful aim at a diminutive, blindfolded figure just six paces away. With cold precision, the order to fire was given and eight shots thundered in unison. As the report faded, Edith Louisa Cavell’s lifeless body sank silently to the ground.
It’s hardly the end that anyone would have predicted for Edith Cavell. She was the daughter of a clergyman and grew up in the picturesque English town of Swardeston. She was a sociable, bright and energetic child. She enjoyed playing cards, tennis and dancing. She was also a talented watercolorist and easily mastered French. But there was much more to Edith Cavell. From an early age it was clear she shared a special empathy for the suffering and the needy. As a child, she accompanied her father as he took food to poor parishioners every Sunday. While still a girl, she organized a successful fund drive to build a parish hall for their church. But it was in caring for the sick that she found her passion. She became a nurse, and in 1907 was recruited to launch a secular nursing program in Belgium. The outbreak of WW I found her still in Brussels and despite numerous opportunities to repatriate, she refused to leave her post.
Initially, Cavell’s biggest challenge was ensuring wounded soldiers of all nationalities were treated equally. But things became more complicated after the German occupation. Red Cross protocols prohibited doctors and nurses from aiding escaped prisoners of war. But when two British soldiers appeared at her hospital one day she felt she had no choice but to help them. She knew the alternative was their capture and summary execution. It was an ethical crisis—a choice between two rights. It was right to comply with the protocols that she’d pledged to obey. Those protocols are what permitted her to care for the wounded in the midst of a war zone. But saving the lives of her countrymen was right too. She was after all, a loyal British subject. In the end, she chose patriotism. The two spared soldiers were followed by others. Inevitably, her actions were discovered, but not before she successfully aided the escape of over 200 soldiers through a network so effective that she actually received thank you notes after the men safely reached England. She was arrested and to the surprise of her captors, made a full and frank confession. She expressed no regrets, however, for doing what she believed was honorable and was prepared to accept the consequences. Those consequences turned out to be 90 days of solitary confinement, a brief trial and a hasty execution that caught even the German hierarchy off guard.
Cavell’s story is certainly one of character, courage and dignity. She had the character to make tough ethical choices. She had the courage to act on those choices even when faced with terrible consequences. But her dignity was probably her most remarkable trait of all. She made no excuses, hurled no recriminations and harbored no ill will. She recognized that “hatred or bitterness” would taint her otherwise noble act and so she resisted that very natural impulse. In this way, Edith Cavell is a good model for us all. Too often we abandon our dignity when we let an intemperate word, sarcasm or an angry outburst diminish all our good work. A momentary loss of control can shatter years of trust and undermine a sterling reputation. The next time you’re feeling provoked, remember Edith Cavell and resist the impulse to anger. You alone control your dignity. Don’t give it away. —Ebert