I’ve been thinking for some time about courage.
Oxford Online Dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.”
As I explore definitions, articles, memes, and quotes about courage online, much of what I read seems superficial and uninspiring – nothing I want to write about.
As always, I did find gold. An article from Psychology Today lists characteristics of courage. My comments are in parentheses.
- Feeling fear yet choosing to act.
- Following your heart.
- Persevering in the face of adversity.
- Standing up for what is right. (Understanding that we’ll never all agree on what is right.)
- Expanding horizons – letting go of the familiar.
- Facing suffering with dignity and faith.
Forbes published an article entitled “10 Traits of Courageous Leaders” that also caught my eye. As far as I’m concerned, these courageous traits are not specific to leaders. Again, my comments are in parentheses.
- Confront reality head-on. (Reality has become subjective. ‘Alternative facts’, anyone? I think of this as the willingness to see things clearly and accept the world (and others) as it is.)
- Seek feedback and listen. (Refusing to answer questions or hear feedback is a red flag. So is the inability to shut up and listen.)
- Say what needs to be said. (Authenticity)
- Encourage push-back.
- Take action on performance issues. (Ooda loop: Observe, orient, decide, act.)
- Communicate openly and frequently. (Authenticity)
- Lead change.
- Make decisions and move forward. (Ooda loop again.)
- Give credit to others. (Gratitude, appreciation, acknowledgment.)
- Hold people (and yourself) accountable. (Integrity)
Most will agree courage is a good thing, an attribute we want to have, an attractive quality we’d like others to see in us. The hardest part of courage, it appears at first look, is simply overcoming our fear and taking action anyway. Then everyone will admire, like, and respect us.
From the bottom of my scarred heart, I wish that was so. Maybe it is so for others, but my experience with courage is the people closest to me, whose opinion I’ve most cared about, have called some of the most courageous choices I’ve ever made cowardice, and I’ve paid a steep and ongoing price for those choices, even though from my perspective they were the right things to do.
Perhaps the most powerful way to think about the traits and aspects of courage listed above is to consider whether they are present or not in our own relationships, groups and communities. Most of us will pay lip service to the idea of courage, but when it comes to taking courageous action, we are severely discouraged from doing so, and we often do all we can to prevent others from doing so as well.
Let’s face it. Courage is damned inconvenient and uncomfortable. In fact, for many, it’s a frank threat.
This is a shadowy aspect of courage few talk about directly, with one major exception.
For example, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden: “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie.” To tell the truth, make courageous choices out of that truth, and be invalidated and/or disbelieved by those close to us is a terrible kind of pain. When others call our courage selfishness, cowardice, malevolence, irresponsibility or hysteria, relationships shatter.
Then I found this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite writers:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice—
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
It’s one thing to be a member of an in-group that provides support as we make choices. It’s a whole other thing to be cast out, scapegoated, or tribally shamed because others do not accept or believe in our fears, dreams, and authenticity, and thus cannot appreciate our courage.
Courage, I find, takes enormous courage.
As I contemplate courage, my relationship to it, and these points, two aspects stand out: The terrible loneliness of courage, and how subjective it is.
Fear is, of course, subjective, too. This came home to me particularly this week as I had a conversation with a young student about concerns and plans for schools reopening. I realized afresh, during our brief interaction, we all fear things in the coming months. Some are afraid they’ll be forced to take a vaccine for coronavirus in order to attend school, or forced to wear a mask all day. Others fear equally there will be no vaccine, at least not a safe and effective one, and students won’t wear masks.
To be human is to know fear. We all have that in common. I wish we could stay rooted in that commonality and work together, but instead most people take it one step farther and fight about which fear is real and legitimate; not a successful strategy for problem-solving.
There’s an old proverb: “Fear and courage are brothers.” Most of us understand courage can’t exist without fear. This aspect of courage is heavily underlined as I research. It doesn’t help us much now, though, when we fear so many different, if not opposite, things.
If fear is subjective, then courage must be, too. Right now we see a mad scramble as different groups work to legitimize their fears and invalidate those of others. Contempt, violence and broken relationships are the result, and we wind up more thoroughly divided than we started.
Courage, then, becomes something we each define for ourselves, rather than a concept we all agree on.
Because our culture has such low emotional intelligence, and fear is a loaded thing to talk about honestly, the idea of courage becomes equally difficult to address and remains nebulous and elusive, a thing in the shadows.
Who would have thought how complicated courage is?
I have no grand conclusions. What I will say is thinking about courage has softened some of my certainty that I can recognize and appreciate it in those around me. What do I know of what lies in the hidden places of others? I’m also reminded, at the end of the day, the best friend and support we have is ourselves. Nobody can walk in our shoes but us, and that means nobody has access to the full truth of our experience, our fear, or the fullness of our courage. Our own love and approval may be all we get, and that needs to be enough.
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