Courage: The Seventh Most Important Virtue for a Good Life

Courage is number seven of my seven essential virtues for leading a happy and successful life.  Every Sunday I start my day with the following prayer:

  • Give me the ability and courage to make a difference today, no matter how small.

 I have been thinking about courage now for quite some time.  One of my favorite quotes is as follows:

“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.” — Ralph W. Sockman

Courage has been one of the most salient virtues in my life.  I think about it often.  I am afraid to be a coward but wonder if I am brave.  Is it courage to do things because you are afraid of how you will think about yourself if you do not?  I have tried to test myself often to prevent feeling like a coward.  Caesar said “Cowards die many times before their deaths, but heroes only die once.”  Perhaps, it was Shakespeare who really said this, but the point remains the same.  My father hated cowards and more than once chastised me for being afraid of something.  I can think of too many times in my life when my father would have been sorely disappointed in me.

When I was young, I always took the side of the underdog.  I would defend anyone against a bully.  I hated bullies with a passion.  I still prefer the underdog.  This might explain to some degree why I care about the poor, the sick and the homeless.  Psychologists would say I was overcompensating to try to win my father’s approval.  It really does not matter to me what they say.  There is something poignant and sad about people who have less or are needier than I am.  There is something despicable about people that only care about themselves and are too ready to say “I did it myself.”  One of my favorite poems is:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
  — John Donne

In thinking about courage, I have found that the subject is more complex than it would appear.  I believe that there are five kinds of courage.  Some of us may be stronger in one while others are stronger in another kind of courage.  I would like to list each kind of courage, give you my definition and then say a little about each one. The five types of courage I have found are:

  • Physical courage
  • Intellectual courage
  • Emotional courage
  • Moral courage
  • Spiritual courage

Physical Courage:

physical courageThis type of courage is the most obvious and perhaps least subtle.  The mountain climber, the motorcycle racer, the football player, the sky diver all display what to some of us would seem to be a reckless disregard for life.  Each of these individuals risk life and limb for either fame, fortune, fun or to achieve some goal.  Often money is the least of their motivations for risking their lives.  These people do things that leave most of us awestruck but also inspired.  We watch their events on TV, in the movies and at live shows.  We never fail to be impressed by the exploits and daring do that such individuals undertake.  Risk is the hallmark of their efforts and we note that many of them pay for their risky behaviors.  Death is an ever present companion for these people.  Somehow though, they rise above the fears that chain the rest of us to the TV and they are out there doing what many of us only do in our dreams.

There is another group though that exhibit raw physical courage and they do it for a different set of reasons.  Soldiers, police officers, emergency medical people and fire fighters all risk their lives on a daily basis.  Most of these individuals do it for altruistic motives.  There is not enough money in the world to convince the rest of us to risk our lives like these people do.  No one can say they only do it for the money, since sadly these occupations are not very well paid.  We pay accountants, Wall Street brokers and MBA’s many times more than we pay the people who risk their lives every day to protect the rest of us.

Intellectual Courage:

Death of Socrates JacquesLouisDavidWhat do you do when someone tells you that your ideas are stupid and that you will never amount to anything?   If you are like most of us, you give up and go on to something else.  The person with intellectual courage though is different from the rest of us.  They don’t give up on their ideas.  They plod forward in the face of distain, insults and criticism.  Many times they are dead and buried before the value of their ideas are recognized.  Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur and Copernicus were all ridiculed and ostracized for many years before their ideas were accepted.  Socrates was executed for his ideas.  Indeed, here is what Socrates said at his trial:

“But some of you will ask, ‘Don’t you regret what you did since now it might mean your death?’ To these I answer, ‘You are mistaken.  A good man should not calculate his chances of living or dying.  He should only ask himself whether he is doing right or wrong—whether his inner self is that of a good man or of an evil one.’  From Plato’s Apology.

Now I ask you, was Socrates a brave and courageous man?  Would you have the conviction to die for your ideas?

Emotional Courage:

moral courageI have a good friend of mine who will not go to funerals.  They make him feel very sad and he tries to avoid such feelings.  No one of us likes to feel sad.  It takes a kind of courage to go to a funeral.  What do you say at a funeral to the friends and relatives of the departed one?  How do you act?  What if you did not know the person very well?  There are many ways to feel embarrassed or like a fish out of water at a funeral.  Easier to stay home then go.  But it takes a certain kind of courage to deal with emotional risk.  Any courage is difficult because of the risk.  Emotional risk entails looking stupid, feeling stupid or having to deal with difficult feelings.  A person with emotional courage confronts these situations with a degree of bravery and élan that escapes many of us.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.  The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”  — Nelson Mandela

emotional courageOne of the greatest fears that many people have is called “stage fright” or fear of public speaking.  Many professional speakers and actors/actresses feel significant stage fright.  Actress Carol Burnett was so nervous that she threw up before many of her performances.  Many of us would never think of getting up on a stage.  I know that people call it stage fright, but it is not really about the stage, it is really about us.  None of us wants to look stupid and particularly not in front of hundreds or people.  It takes emotional courage to deal with life.  All of us have it, but many of us choose not to exercise it.  We simply spend our lives trying to avoid situations that might make us look dumb or embarrass ourselves.  The people with emotional courage deal with these situations and take the risk that the rest of us hide from.

Moral Courage:

malalaThe world is full of examples of moral courage.  However, to my way of thinking, the amount of moral cowardice far outweighs the shining examples of moral courage.  The number of Kings, Gandhis, Mandelas. Parks, Kellers and Kyis are dwarfed by the number of moral cowards who turn the quote I noted above around.  These are the people who when in the majority would tyrannize the minorities.  They are the moral cowards who use their positions to foster hatred and bigotry and intolerance towards the disadvantaged and weak.  They prey on the sick and quote-moral-courage-is-a-more-rare-commodity-than-bravery-in-battle-or-great-intelligence-robert-kennedy-345839hungry and would deny benefits or help to anyone who is not a member of their club or affiliation.  They go through life pretending to be good people and deluding themselves that they are.

Conversely, we have those cowards who when in the minority are afraid to risk.  They are afraid to speak out when they are surrounded by racists and bigots.  They are afraid of what their friends and neighbors might think if they stand up for their beliefs.  So they say and do nothing.  They find it easy to ignore the admonition that:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”  — Edmund Burke

This group of moral cowards also includes the pious so-called Christians who feel that all they need to do to guarantee their ascent into heaven is to spout religious slogans from the bible. They conveniently forget what Jesus himself did and what the apostle James noted:

“So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” — James 2:17

Jesus said:

“So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” — Matthew 7:21

I understand both of these passages to mean that a good person must do good deeds.  It is not enough to have good thoughts or to say “I believe, I believe.”  You must also be able to say “I do good.”  “I do good.”  And what good do you do?  Do you stand up for those who are being persecuted or do you join in their persecution?  Moral courage is standing up for your beliefs.  It is standing up for other people.  It is not just thinking about “What would Jesus do.”  It is doing what Jesus would do.  Jesus would not be silent in the face of persecution of others.

Spiritual Courage:

In my mind, spiritual is the ability to face the uncertainly of life and to greet each day with a sense of awe and hope that the world I can be a better person and that I can help make the world a better place.  If we look at the word spirit, we can find the following definition:

“The inner character of a person, thought of as different from the material person we can see and touch.”  — Cambridge Dictionary

The world greets us each day with new possibilities.  Many of these possibilities entail risk.  Risk of dying in a car accident.  Risk of dying in a shooting.  Risk of being raped.  Risk of losing a loved one.  Risk of disease.  Risk of unhappiness.  The list of risks we face each day is endless.  We are sensitized to these risks by the onslaught of news and media that bombards us minute by minute and second by second with ghastly deeds that journalists love to print.

Fear is ever present in our society today and is it any wonder?  The media exalt in horror stories that should have most of us seeking sanctuary in a deep dark cave.  We long to be  hidden from the persecution that seems to engulf our daily lives.  Catholics fighting Protestants.  Jews fighting Muslims.  Shia fighting Sunnis.  Tea Party people hating liberals.  Blacks and Whites inflicting insults and defamations on each other.  Women and children subjected to abuse every second of the day.  Wars raging in one country or another.  The wealthy despising the poor and the poor envying the wealthy.  Life is portrayed as nothing but an unmitigated disaster waiting for a tragedy to befall us or so these stories would seem to have us believe.  The news becomes simply a drug whose side effects are to convince each of us to drop out of life and to give up on the world.

“During my 2009 service as an Air Force chaplain in Iraq, I saw countless examples of heroism.  However, the most spiritually heroic act I witnessed was the prayer of a soldier who asked God to forgive the insurgents who had killed his battle buddy.”

Hero’s Highway: A Chaplain’s Journey Toward Forgiveness Inside a Combat Hospital

I wonder that anyone has the courage to get out of bed each day.  It is astonishing to me that any of us has the desire to do good for the world or to make a difference.  It hardly seems possible to roll back the evil and injustices that pour forth each day from every corner of the globe.  So why bother?  One atrocity surpasses and begets the next atrocity.

courageroarNevertheless, in the face of all this iniquity, the majority of humankind has a spiritual courage that defies logic.  The majority of people want to do good for the world. The majority of people are good and most people try to leave the world a better place then they found it.  This is truly an amazing observation.  More people are spiritual heroes than not.  Every day anyone who has the courage and strength to get out of bed and to start a new day is someone who shows a sense of spiritual courage.  It would be easier to hide and to do nothing then to face the daily rigors of life on our planet.  Yet, that is what the majority of people do each day.  They get out of bed.  They go to work.  They volunteer.  They innovate and create.  They campaign for their ideals.  They build.  They love.  They pay taxes.  They die.  And the cycle starts all over again for the next generation.

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” — Helen Keller

Time for Questions:

What kinds of courage do you have?  What kind of courage do you wish you had more of?  Why?  What could you do to find more courage in your life? Do you think it would make a difference?  Why?

Life is just beginning.

“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential.  Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.  We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” — Maya Angelou

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: