A law professor stood in front of his first year students and told them the following story:
“Two hikers walked a wooded trail at a national park. The first hiker came across a small shrub that had started to grow on the trail. He stepped over it and kept going.
“When the second hiker came to the shrub, though, she stopped and looked at it for a moment. She could tell from the thickness of its girth yet sparseness of branches and leaves that it had been trampled repeatedly. She left the trail and walked back to her car where she retrieved a small shovel. Returning to the trail, she dug a small hole off to the side of the trail. Then, very carefully, she dug up the shrub and transplanted it in a place where it wouldn’t be trampled.
The law professor then asked his class:
“Who are you in this story?”
Almost immediately the class divided into two groups. One group proclaimed that the first hiker was right, the one who stepped over the shrub. These students argued that the law forbids anyone from digging up, moving, or taking any plant or animal found in a national park. The law was clear on this matter:
Do the Right Thing by Doing Nothing!
The second group, just as adamant in the opposite direction, stated that a higher law suggested that the hiker who moved the plant was in the right. They quoted things that sounded like Edmond Burke’s admonition that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Do the Moral Thing, Not the Legal Thing!
The professor sat back in his chair and let the students have some time to talk over and at one another. But he noticed that one student in the back of the room listened carefully, but he said nothing, not even when everyone else in the class either held the floor or held a passionate sidebar.
Noticing this, the professor held up his hands and said, “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t ventured an opinion on the subject. Alec,” he said pointing to the back of the room, “I’d like your thoughts, please.”
The classroom quieted down as Alec stood up.
“You asked,” Alec said softly, “I mean, the question you asked was ‘Who are you in this story?‘”
Students around the room started to frown slightly, realizing that they had been answering “What is the right thing to do?” instead of answering the question the professor asked.
Alec drew in a breath, and said with a balance of pride and shame
“I Am the Shrub”
Alec explained that as a child he shared a small apartment with his three brothers and a drug addicted mother who spent time in and out jail throughout his childhood. Alec hadn’t seen his father since his 4th birthday. Alec’s father went out for cigarettes and never returned.
Alec’s mother brought home addicts and drunks with rage issues, and the boy described how he would often take the brunt of their outbursts simply because he had the misfortune of having nowhere else to go. More than once, he would take blows while trying to get his brothers to come hide with him in the bathroom while their mother had “company.”
Alec said, “The neighbors heard everything. I know they did, because the walls were thin. They never came by to check on us.”
But Alec also shared that he had some people in his life that really invested in him. “I had a couple of teachers who saw something in me. Like my history teacher, Mr. Ragen,” Alec added.
While he spoke, he reached into his wallet and pulled out a heavily-folded note and held it in his hand.
“Mr. Ragen stapled a note on one of my essays with a quote from Winston Churchill that said:
Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
Alec described how this teacher loaned him biographies of great, historic figures. Mr. Ragen pointed out to Alec that many of the greatest leaders started from a place of great adversity. And it was Mr. Ragen who clapped the loudest and proudest when Alec graduated from high school. And finally, it was Mr. Ragen who encouraged and persuaded Alec to study political science, and to help him pay for college, Mr. Ragen helped the boy chase down every financial aid package and every scholarship he could find.
The professor nodded at Alec from the front of the room, and then he asked him a question:
“Why are you here, Alec? Why are you studying law?”
Alec cleared his voice and spoke louder than he had a moment ago.
“I’m studying law because I am the shrub. Even though I spent years being stepped on and stepped over, I want to pay back those people who wouldn’t let me quit. And when I’m done with law school, I plan to help other shrubs.”
Let me throw out a few things for you to chew on:
1. Isn’t it enough to DO NO HARM? Walking around a shrub in your path is like not stepping on the head of a homeless person sleeping on a grate on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago during the Winter. You don’t win a medal for not causing additional suffering. To become a positive contributor to society and making the world a better place has a higher standard than to not make matters worse.
What are you going to do this month, this week, or today to help another person?
2. Is it possible that you’re the savior a “shrub” has been seeking? More than once in my life, I’ve heard words of encouragement out of the blue when I needed them the most. Once in college, someone even slipped an envelop under my door with my name on it. Inside I found no note, just a $10 bill, an absolute fortune to me at the time!
I try to remember those lessons and have the willingness to give to others in the same way that others have helped me.
So in the story of the two hikers and the shrub: Who are you in this story? And who do you want to come along when your car breaks down at 2:00 in the morning?