We never know. We prance around our little lives, tossed by flicks and stings of the moment; but in a snap, it hits—a defining moment. Do we remain frightfully silent? Lash out in anger? Watch with intrigue but remain uncommitted? Many times, we brush off the challenge, justify our inaction and move back into our protected existence. People of character do more. They respond with courage, pushing past their first inclination to avoid or protect. They act wisely, constructively building a legacy.
Paul Kurtz wrote that courage is necessary “to achieve anything, to defend our stake, or to extend our vistas. . .” (1997, pg. 19). Courage separates hopeful dreamers from successful actors. The courageous take their dreams and test the script on the screen of life. The courageous honestly face life with its hurts and disappointments. The courageous fear but move through the fear. The courageous warriors act when others hide. These are the winners that artfully respond to life.
“It takes courage to be a real winner… a winner at responding to life. It takes courage to experience the freedom that comes with autonomy, courage to accept intimacy and directly encounter other persons, courage to take a stand in an unpopular cause, courage to choose authenticity over approval and to choose it again and again, courage to accept the responsibility for your own choices, and, indeed, courage to be the very unique person you really are.” (Muriel & Jongeward, location 2832).
Courage One of the Four Cardinal Virtues
Courage is the energizing catalyst for other virtues. Courage transforms virtues into character. Without courage to express, virtues lie dormant. The beauties of honesty, justice and wisdom are often suppressed by fear. Rollo May wrote, “Courage is not a virtue or value among other personal values like love or fidelity. It is the foundation that underlies and gives reality to all other virtues and personal values.” (1994).
The Greek philosophers valued courage, placing courage (fortitude) among the four cardinal virtues (the others are justice wisdom and temperance).
We are pressured internally and externally to live unremarkable live. We are shamed when we stand out from the crowd. We suffer from a bystander disease. We watch violence and glories from a distance, afraid to risk, afraid to be judged, afraid to succeed. We are afraid to be great—to be winner.
Courage transforms virtues into character. Without courage to express, virtues lie dormant.
Courage to Act When Other Don't
In the early hours of March 13, 1964, twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese was accosted while returning home from her employment. The attack spanned over thirty minutes. The ghastly murder was (reportedly) witnessed by thirty-eight residents of the victim’s own apartment complex, none of her neighbors came to her aide and no one immediately summoned police.
Psychologists speculate that the witnesses to the Genovese murder were lulled into non-action by the inaction of others. Each witness frozen. In the high-stakes of life, we sit and watch, hoping something will be done, wishing that somebody with intervene—the Genovese Syndrome. By-standers freeze when action is needed; but surprisingly, if someone moves to help, others are jolted into action. We need courage to be the first.
Courage is required in daily affairs, not just distant wars. Heroism can be expressed in everyday chores of becoming. David Brooks wrote in his New York Best seller, The Road to Character, “while those who lead flat and unremarkable lives may avoid struggle, a well-lived life involves throwing oneself into struggle, that large parts of the most worthy lives are spent upon the rack, testing moral courage and facing opposition and ridicule, and that those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure (2016, location 673).
We can be the winner—the hero; but first, we need courage.
Courage isn’t fearlessness. Life is frightful and we should be afraid. Fearlessly jumping into the fray without a plan isn’t courageous. Thoughtless action is often foolish—not courageous. We end up dead, maimed or broke. Being courageous isn’t acting blindly. Nelson Goud, author of Psychology and Personal Growth, argues that an action must contain three dimensions to be considered courageous: fear, appropriate action, and higher purpose. When one of these key ingredients is missing the act is not courageous (Goud, 2005).
Courage to Change: Taking the appropriate action to fulfill a greater purpose, leaving past damaging comforts.
Sometimes Courage is Non-Action
Appropriate action is acting wisely and well. Courage is not just a commitment to action, but the right action. After gathering information, we must move with action or patience. Many times the appropriate response is to listen and wait. Choosing to wait can be very courageous. Purposeful non-action is different than fear to act. Sitting and watching demands a reservoir of inner-strength as we acknowledge our helplessness to unknown factors (complexity).
One of the most fearful periods of my life involved waiting. The opioid crisis struck home, and I watched an adult child self-destruct. The more I did to “force” recovery the further I drove him away. Each act of help was wrapped in uncertainty. I didn’t know whether I was being supportive or enabling—helping or hurting. Our sporadic conversations were unproductive games—accusations, advice and resistance. I needed courage to change what wasn’t working—my automatic reactions. The change was learning to wait, allowing events to playout, remaining prepared to act if opportunity presented itself. I suffered through several years of uncertainty. The challenge dragged my soul to the depths of sorrow—waiting, worrying and helpless.
Courage was keeping doors open, monitoring my responses to maintain positive communication, void of harsh indictments. I used the intervening years to learn about addiction, hoping the knowledge would lead to his recovery. Instead, my growing understanding led to compassion, accepting my child as he was, without placing heavy demands on the fragile relationship. These gentle steps took several years, with routine set-backs.
The years of waiting were littered with personal investigations into my own shame and guilt, not his problems. The first successes were only measured by the strengthening relationship. By regulating my turbulent emotions, we enjoyed productive conversations, and sacred moments of honesty. Patience and listening were essential steps that I previously skipped, creating a friction that damaged the process of recovery.
Courage is context dependent. Sometimes courage is speaking up, other times shutting-up. When witnessing a murder, an immediate response is required. However, most events playout over hours, days and years. We have time to evaluate options, gather information, and seek advice. Postponing action by choosing to wait is uncomfortable. We want to react—run, hide or fight, moving on the strongest impulse, escaping the anxiety of uncertainty.
Wise action is an active engagement, honestly examining circumstances and impulses before movement. The cognitive demands of purposeful actions (mindfulness) create vulnerability—ownership of choice.
Occasionally, even with caution, we choose wrong. Instead of blaming the world for not bowing to our assessment, we must own our vulnerability to the unknown. We can only correct these errors through honest assessment, taking responsibility, and adapting. This is difficult; we are inclined to soften reality, padding the blows to our delicate egos, suggesting our decision was right, but the world was wrong. It’s easier to habitual avoid or protectively blame than accepting our vulnerability to the unknown.
Courage requires inner-strength to move into this vulnerability. Authentically expressing ourselves in openness exposes our imperfections, individuality, and inconsistencies. Removing protective walls is turbulent, pushing us into the unknown, allowing unfavorable reactions to tender revelations of the soul.
Deception and Cowardice
Deception is another cowardly response. We protect against vulnerability through inauthentic relationships. We try to build intimate connection through deception. This is misguided, believing that how people view us is more important than our actual character. The courageous path is to become the person we wish others to see.
We find comfort in exactness; rigid protective structures that prevent unplanned and unwanted events. We want life to be certain; but it’s not and never will be. We are vulnerable to the uncertain, complex and dynamic environments. Our ability to predict futures can be refined but not perfected. We must courageously take steps into the darkness of uncertainty.
Robert Frost expressed it, "courage is the human virtue that counts most-courage to act on limited knowledge and insufficient evidence. That's all any of us have."
Best-selling author Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work wrote, “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional,” Brown adds in Daring Greatly “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage” (2015).
We are driven to create certainty. We find comfort in predictability. It’s less demanding. These driving forces inhibit growth. Courage is required to push beyond certainty, moving out of the safety zone. We must hop these fences. The uncertainty makes these explorations challenging, fraught with danger. Success requires evaluating, predicting and testing our predictions. This is the scary stuff that many choose to avoid.
“We live at the threshold of the unknown and (must) have the courage to move into new and uncharted waters. This is living a life as it unfolds, moment by moment, in a flowing journey between rigidity and chaos” (Siegel, 2010, location 1337).
We transform our lives with courage. We must confront frightening habits that repeatedly interfere with our dreams. Theodore Jacobs from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute of the New York School of Medicine wrote a touching tribute to his patients’ work in therapy. He wrote, “I also believe that in their willingness to take a hard look at themselves and to face their problems squarely and honestly, many of our patients display great courage” (2008).
We need courage to confront anxieties, chart a new course, and calmly embrace the givens of life. This often requires revisiting the past. Courage is approaching past trauma and difficult emotions, confronting the living remnants of our avoided pasts. We heal by integrating the past into the present. “We must stare emotions in the eye, with patience and curiosity, and the more we learn to spot their wisdom as well as their mischief, the less grip they will have on us” (Lerner, 2005, location 177). Our journey acknowledges fear, but rather than impulsively avoid fear, we move closer to it, and at times, even leap into it.
Personal transformation takes guts. Our lives are set on a trajectory during childhood. Emotions adapt to the childhood environments, molding urgings with cultural settings. Autonomous reactions go into hiding when we learn from experience that it is not safe to think, see, speak, and act authentically. We adapt to avoid confrontation with our godlike caregivers (at least in our childish perceptions). These become the patterns for facing challenges throughout our lives.
We must also confront biological urgings that evolved to adapt to harsh ancient environments. Acting in opposition to both culturally learned and biological impulses requires fortitude, drawing on new sets of internal and external resources. Instead of being a product of unseen forces, we become the artist sculpturing our lives, using the tools of agency and intention.
We never know when character defining moments will collide with our cozy existence. But if our courage is well practiced from successfully navigating daily encounters with uncertainty, we will be ready to move, responding from an ethical core rather than running or freezing. Yes, we want courage to have the “courage to be,” but more than just being, we press forward in the fear, having courage to become.
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Brooks, D. (2016) The Road to Character. Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition
Brown, B. (2015) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery; Reprint edition
Goud, N. H. (2005). Courage: Its Nature and Development. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 44(1), 102.
Jacobs, T. (2008). ON COURAGE. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 25(3), 550-555.
Kurtz, P. (1997) The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism. Praeger. Westport, CT. Publication
Lerner, H. (2005). The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self. Perennial Currents; Reprint edition.
May, R. (1994) The Courage to Create. W. W. Norton & Company; Revised ed. edition
Muriel, J; Jongeward, J. (1996) Born To Win: Transactional Analysis With Gestalt Experiments, Da Capo Lifelong Books; 25th Anniversary ed. Edition.
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam; Reprint edition
Tillich, P. (2014). The Courage to Be. Yale University Press; 3 edition.