Courage and Fear

Mention the word ‘Courage’ and many people would imagine someone running into a burning building to save a family or perhaps an otherwise unassuming shopper taking down a masked robber in a supermarket.

While the above examples are no doubt extraordinary acts of courage, we shouldn’t limit the spectrum of thought to such daring instances alone. It can be tempting to think in such a way especially when the media we consume is full of superheroes with indestructible shields and incomparable strength, but the reality isn’t so black and white.

Opposites

Courage and Fear and inextricably linked. While we normally think that Courage itself is evidence of the absence of fear, in reality it means to take action while overriding it.

George R.R. Martin explained this succinctly when he wrote:

“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’

‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’’ his father told him.”

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Courage/Bravery can only exist in contrast to fear. Alone they have no inherent meaning in the same way we appreciate a hot, sunny day only because we know what cold, rainy ones feel like.

To act with Courage means to acknowledge the fact that the action you are undertaking carries an element of danger, that there is a risk of failure, of injury, effect on reputation or generally some type of loss with consequence. No matter the scale, the risk is real but the decision to act regardless is what causes the virtue of Courage to stand tall within.

Once this is understood, we can see that being Courageous isn’t limited only to the feats of rescuing a family from a burning building or thwarting armed robbers, but to anyone who feels fear, to anyone who experiences a choice wherein resides some element of risk. Where there is Fear, there is the opportunity for Courageousness.

Nurture. Not Nature

Now we know that everyone feels Fear and that Courage is an active choice to override it, we can understand a vital fact of life.

Every single one of us has the potential to act Courageously, whatever the situation.

Erling Kagge writes:

“…’Courageous’ isn’t something we are, it’s something we become – just as cowardice is not bestowed upon us at birth. Being courageous is a new challenge each and every time the need arises.”

Erling Kagge, Philosophy for Polar Explorers

It is important not to misunderstand these great words here. Some people are predisposed to take a higher level of risk than others, and this might result in it being easier to be Courageous than others. We are all unique in our temperaments but the underlying point here is that while some may have to work harder than others to achieve the same thing, we are all malleable in this regard. We have the ability to make ourselves the person we want to be; nothing is off limits when it comes to choosing our character traits.

Shakespeare said it best when he wrote:

“Assume a virtue if you have it not.”

Hamlet

Act with the characteristics you want even if it feel forced, and eventually you will find them as part of your nature.

Challenging the Archetype

While the average persons envisions someone Courageous as some well built individual who completes some heroic deed in full view of the people, Courage comes in all forms, shapes and sizes. It is not limited to those of strong stature nor is it limited to physical deeds.

A person may face a daunting situation day in day out which taxes him mentally or emotionally, one which is as much of a challenge as facing a feared enemy, yet he persists in challenging and working within the situation. A realistic example would be that of a Parent working long hours at a difficult job they dislike to get their child a good education so as to give them a better life than they ever had. This individual has as much Courage as someone who rushes into a burning building. The only difference is the form Courage takes.

Author Brett McKay lists 3 different types of Courage in his book ‘The Art of Manliness – Manvotionals’. While there may be more than 3, his definitions are clear and compelling:

  1. Physical Courage
  2. Intellectual Courage
  3. Moral Courage

While some people may be genetically predisposed so that some types of Courage area easier for them, there may be other types that are simultaneously much harder. The hero of the burning building may find it near impossible to challenge widely held beliefs even though he knows them to be wrong. The diligent Parent who toils day in and day out, sacrificing their time and energy to give their child the opportunity for a better life clearly excels when it comes to Moral Courage, but may not necessarily commit the same acts of Physical Courage as another.

The wholesome achievement of Courage means to act courageously in all its forms, but don’t let a deficiency in one distract you from another, work on your weaknesses.

Seek Danger. Take Risks.

Anyone living in a major city in a developed country knows how many laws and regulations there can be for what feels like every single thing. While this is not a call for breaching any civil or criminal law, we should take the opportunity to embrace a bit more calculated risk and danger in our day to day lives. Living within a self-contained bubble means we forgo our adventurous spirit for a safer, consistent, monotonous experience. Anyone who has had to live in such a way before knows the feeling of something missing.

Compare this attitude of constant risk avoidance to that of children, they see risk and are constantly trying to push the limits, to see the new heights of achievements they can reach. They do so because they see the world around them as full of opportunity and a chance to do the same, seemingly exciting things as their giant, hairier counterparts. And what is the result of this constant friction against the safety net that surrounds them? Undoubtedly they get hurt, but much – if not most – of the time they learn more about their capabilities, learn more about the world and are able to do more as a result, all due to their risk taking. Perhaps we should take a lesson from them every once in a while.

Taking risks means being faced with important choices more often. It is only when we are confronted with a kind of risk that we are presented with the opportunity to mould ourselves into the person we want to be. It is only then that we are shown 2 paths heading in opposite directions, the fork in the road becomes an option presented to your character and soul. Will we follow what we wish to be or will we succumb to what we feel easiest to do?

As C.S. Lewis puts it:

“Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

To provide the counter-balance to this notion, this is not a call for wild, dangerous risk taking for the sake of it, but for a strategy of calculated risk wherein there is enough of it for the action to be considered fresh and adventurous, but not too much that the action becomes foolish and blameworthy. This increased level of risk doesn’t have to be limited to the physical sphere of action, it could be taking an emotional risk and telling somehow how you feel, or perhaps related to money such as starting a business you’ve always wanted to. It is important to know your strengths and more importantly your weaknesses so that you can work on them whilst excelling in that which comes naturally to you.

As Orison Swett Marden says:

“A man should early take an inventory of his ability and locate himself where he belongs.”

Orison Swett Marden, Ambition and Success

Take note of your strengths, passions and that which comes easy, be more daring in your deeds and align the two.

To summarise:

  1. Fear is a prerequisite for Courage.
  2. Courage requires its active nourishment within your soul.
  3. Physical Courage is not the only type.
  4. Take more risks.

The choice is yours.

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