An Impossible Choice

“I’ve been with this teacher for some time. He is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. I’ve been sensing many disturbing things about him. The way he treats people doesn’t match up with his “state of realization”. I’m starting to think he is full of it. I’ve tried to address this with him once and he became quite aggressive. Some of the members in our community began to turn on me. I’m having a really hard time with this. I think I can see through his mask now. But at the same time many of my friends still believe in him. I don’t want to lose them. So, I still play nice. But it doesn’t feel right to me. I feel I’m being faced with an impossible choice. I’m not sure what I should do…”
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***
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I’m not sure what you should do either. But let me tell you a little story about Mr. Welcome…

When I was in the fifth grade I attended an all boys British school in Kolkata (Calcutta, at that time). Our class teacher was a man named Mr. Welcome.

Mr. Welcome was one of those teachers you dreamed of having. He was good looking, oozed machismo and was incredibly charismatic. He was an excellent teacher. He kept his students’ attention hanging off his every word. He was hilarious, inspirational and magnetic. He made every one of us feel like we were part of his team. He called us his “boys” and he felt more like a father to us than our own fathers were. Our class was the envy of other classes. Most other boys wished they had Welcome as their class teacher.

If the picture is still unclear to you, I want you to envision Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. O Captain, My Captain! He was our captain. And we were his troops. I’m quite sure any of us would have gone to war for him, that’s how much we loved and believed in him. That is how much love we felt from him as well.

And of all the boys in class, I was his golden boy. He often told me I reminded him of himself when he was my age. I was an excellent English student (the subject he primarily taught). I could quote writers ranging from Shakespeare to P. G. Wodehouse back to him. I was a fierce scrapper and competitive in sports. He had been a boxer and a track athlete as well in his youth. I loved him like he was my own father.

Every year, the school held an Elocution contest. This was an oratory event in which contestants could choose a poem or a piece of prose and would have to recite it to an audience and a panel of judges. Each class from every grade put forth one or two contestants for the contest. Because of my sharp oratory skills, I was selected to take part in the event that year. I had chosen a particularly humorous story – a poem by Roald Dahl, for my piece. I spent two months rehearsing it in preparation for the event.

A couple of weeks before the event, Mr. Welcome announced to the class that the school had come up with a new event. A dramatics contest which would occur in only a week’s time. Each class would have to put on a play and the winning class would win a field trip somewhere special. The news electrified the class and everyone immediately began wondering what play we would put on. How could we create a script on such short notice? Who would the actors be? How would we learn our lines so quickly?

Mr. Welcome then announced to the class that he had decided that the play, our class would perform, was the same story I was reciting for the elocution contest. He said it was an excellent and humorous story and, since we were all familiar with it after watching me rehearse it, it would be a story everyone could ramp up on quickly. Then he looked at me and flashed one of his charming smiles,

“You don’t mind, do you my boy?”

I was a bit surprised by his decision, especially since performing it just a week before my own contest would take the element of surprise out of my own performance. But I didn’t think twice about it. I wanted our class to win no matter the cost. I grinned back and said it was no problem at all.

“That’s my boy!”

That evening I mentioned to my mother that our class would be putting on a play. When she asked what play it was, I told her it was the same one I would be reciting a week later. She was taken aback by this. Why would he choose THAT play when he knows how hard you’ve been working on this?? She asked. I told her it wasn’t a big deal. And she insisted it was. She said she was going to write a letter to him explaining the conflict of interest. I said it wasn’t necessary, but she reassured me that she was going to say it very nicely and even recommend some alternative scripts that she would be happy to type out for him. Eventually, her insistence wore me down and I caved.

The next morning I delivered the letter to Mr. Welcome as the class assembled. We all took our seats as he stood silently reading the letter. I watched him intently and started to get this uneasy knot of anxiety in my stomach. Something didn’t feel right. His face darkened. He didn’t look at me. He simply placed the envelope on the table and said to the class,

“I have an announcement to make.”

It sounded so serious, everyone hushed at once. That knot in my stomach was now a sick feeling.

“My boys, we have been let down by one of our own. Someone we trusted. Someone I believed in more than I’ve believed in any other. He has betrayed us. Shiv doesn’t want our class to succeed. He only cares about himself. He only cares about winning himself. He has been a coward. He has made his mother write a letter to tell me what I can or can’t do. He has taken our play away from us. That’s right boys. We are no longer allowed to do it. But don’t worry we will find something else. We will find a way to succeed despite his act of cowardice and betrayal. Let this be a lesson boys. Even a trusted brother can suddenly stab you in the back if he stands to benefit. Now we all know his true colors.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was as if time stood still in that moment. I watched the entire image I had built of the man, in my mind, shatter into a million pieces. I could feel the fiery glance of 39 other boys searing into the back of my neck. I went from class hero to social pariah in a single instant.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” The words echoed in the background rousing me from my stupor. Mr. Welcome was glaring at me. I knew what he wanted. What he needed.

I stood up to address him, as was customary and replied, my voice shaking, “I have nothing to say. I stand by that letter.”

His eyes grew wide with disbelief. He had fully expected me to grovel, to repent, to beg forgiveness, to confess that I had made a momentary and fatal error, to be begged to be let back in the fold. He would have, in his usual charming way, magnanimously forgiven me and told me not to give into my petty vanity at the expense of my brotherhood ever again, or some such nonsense. Yet, none of that held any appeal for me anymore. In that single instant, I saw through him and the sham of a “brotherhood” that we were.

The class went ahead and put on a different play the following week. The play had 39 participants. I was the only one excluded from participating, by him.

For the remainder of the year he made my life hell. He graded me much more unforgivingly than he did the other boys. My efforts to participate in the classes were completely ignored. He often made remarks to humiliate or ridicule me in front of the other boys. And they all lapped it up and laughed and guffawed. They called me “weak”, a “coward”, a “loser”, a “traitor”, a “sellout”, a “snake”. It stung badly, of course. These had all been my friends, my brothers. Now, I was worse than scum to them.

But I never regretted my decision: not to acquiesce…not to compromise my own self-respect in order to win back their love.

The year went by.

It was the last week of class. And by now, Welcome’s attitude towards me had begun to soften a bit. I sensed that he felt I had been in purgatory long enough. So, he asked me to stand up in class one day. And he looked at me with his usual charming smile and said,

“I think he’s learned his lesson now eh, boys? What do you say, Shiv? Shall we say this has been an important learning experience for everyone and put it past us, my boy?” The others were all murmuring. They seemed happy at this final reconciliation at the end of the school year.

He was looking at me with that twinkle in his eye, that roguish smile. I felt a slight tug within me – a reminder of what used to be.

And then I looked him dead straight in the eyes and said,

“I’m not your boy.”

Welcome stared at me, still smiling. The other boys were shocked. He nodded, then looked away and continued with the class.

Even after I went to the sixth grade, I’d sometimes encounter him in the hallways. He’d make some friendly remark, try to engage me in some sportive kind of way. But I wouldn’t give him the time of day. I knew what he was. And I knew what I was…

***

The dynamic you are referring to isn’t exclusive to spiritual circles. It exists everywhere: in schools, in corporations, in the military, you name it. The strength of the herd and the sense of belonging one feels, especially when under the guidance of a charismatic leader, is an incredibly powerful force. It’s powerful enough to start wars and revolutions.

But there is one thing that is even more powerful than that. And that is the power of your own spirit. It is infinitely more powerful.

But there is no way for you to really KNOW this until you have put it to the test. And those tests come in the form of making impossible choices. Choices that feel like burning every bridge we have built and excommunicating ourselves from the ones we know and love. No wonder few ever make such choices.

I have known incredible, conscientious, kind people stand by and watch abuse and discrimination happen because they were faced with this impossible choice. I have watched strong, independent and self-respecting people accept abuse and comply with conditions that go against their own sense of ethics because they were faced with this impossible choice.

I cannot tell you what you need to do. I can only tell you what I did. And that wasn’t the only time I stood up to a false authority in my life. I did it over and over and over again. And each time, without fail, I was alienated from my clan as a result of it.

Yet, in the end, each alienation just served to set me more in tune with myself.

Each excommunication, from a foreign land I once believed was my own, only served to deliver me closer to home.

The world is full of Welcomes. But there is only one of you. The real choice you face is which one you will choose to honor.

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