There are many strengths and virtues a person can possess but none may be as important as courage. For if fear can immobilize then courage can liberate.
In an effort to explore courage this post is divided into two sections. First you will be presented with five quotations that focus on courage. The quotations are followed by questions that can be utilized for personal reflection. This is followed by my brief meditation on the topic.
Hence also courage involves pain, and is justly praised; for it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant.
-Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book III.9
To see something you ought to do and not to do it is want of courage.
-Confucius, The Analects, Chapter 2.24
We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear. We want those encounters on our own terms, so that we can control their outcomes, so that they will not threaten our view of world and self.
-Parker J. Palmer (1)
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
-JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (2)
He (Abraham Lincoln) calmly and bravely heard the voices of doubt and fear all around him; but he had an oath in heaven, and there was not power enough on earth to make this honest …backwoodsman…violate that sacred oath.
-Frederick Douglass, “Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln” (April 14, 1876)
- When have you encountered courage causing pain? How did you navigate those difficult waters?
- Read the quote by Confucius. How does it strike you – as a challenge, a reprimand, a fact, etc.? Is he correct in his assessment? How did you come to your conclusion?
- In the passage from The Hobbit, Bilbo is proceeding down a tunnel toward the lair of the dragon, Smaug. How can the words of Aristotle, Confucius, and Palmer all be related to Bilbo’s moment or heroism?
- What “voices of doubt and fear” surround you? How can you overcome them?
- Courage takes many forms. For Bilbo it included taking the next step down the tunnel. What small act of courage have you recently taken? Did you take a moment to appreciate this small victory, even if others would not recognize your efforts as courageous? If you didn’t, why not do so now?
When considering the virtue of courage people often find themselves drawn to examples of physical courage. Truth be told, however, many of us will never be required to dive into raging waters to save someone from drowning or race into a burning building. We may never have to risk our lives for another. This does not mean we lack courage. I would dare say many of the problems facing us will NEVER be overcome until we develop and strengthen our sense of moral courage.
Almost any action we deem difficult requires a certain amount of courage, even those actions that are not dramatic or that come easily to others. If you have never been bashful, you do not understand the courage a shy student must muster to complete an oral presentation. If you have always been athletic it would be hard to understand the courage required for a player cut from the team one year to shows up next year to try again, risking great disappointment for the possible reward. Stepping into an office for a job interview, listening to an aggrieved friend while withholding judgment, moving to a new city or state in pursuit of a job or simply asking someone on a date all require different amounts of courage for different people. If you look back at this list you note courage does not predict success, merely opportunity.
This frustrating aspect of courage – that it does not guarantee success, it merely guarantees the opportunity – brings us to a sometimes bitter conclusion. Courage is, and we must allow it to be, its own reward. Knowing you did not give in to fear could fill you with a sense of pride or, at the very least, embolden you to try again. Perhaps acting courageously in small ways allows the virtue of courage to be strengthened and easier to access the next time it’s needed. So be courageous! Your future self may thank you! Speaking of gratitude, here are two examples of courage exhibited by former students which I am thankful to have been privy.
Stories From School
The first example addresses the common problem of relationships gone awry. Teenagers, like adults, can make a fine mess of their friendships. Many of us have been wrong but never offered an apology to the one we offended because as our pride overcame our courage. We would rather continue pretending we are not to blame and risk a relationship than take the steps necessary to make amends. At such times Confucius’ voice chastising us for our “want of courage” is entirely appropriate. But alas, we heed not his words and the relationship ends. Granted we take comfort in blaming the other person, if only they weren’t so stubborn and saw things our way. Now, I am not saying that the other is blameless, I am just noting that, on occasion, our own shortcomings add to the problem. What relationship in your life right now is under some strain or pressure? Who will find the courage to reach out the open hand instead of the closed fist so healing can begin?
Some years ago a student of mine (we shall call her “Alexis”) exhibited the courage necessary to save a friendship. On this day a class discussions on the ideal of “Carpe Diem” (seize the day) inspired the most extraordinary action. I did not witness the event, but a tearful Alexis came to me and told the tale. Evidently, she and a friend had been quarreling for some time. When she left the “Carpe Diem” class she, naturally, saw the girl walking towards her. The girl looked angrily (in Alexis’ estimation) at her. Alexis responded by embracing her friend in a strong hug. The friend tried to pull away, but ended up bursting into tears and returning the hug.
Some weeks later I asked Alexis how she and her friend were doing. She answered fine; we just need to work on some stuff. What a fitting answer. Whatever problems Alexis and her friend had to overcome was not solved by the hug, but that courageous moment enabled them to move forward, rather than remain stuck in a perpetual state of animosity. Courage alone did not solve the problem, but it enabled other tools, forgiveness, faith, patience and love to come into play. Just as many tasks require multiple people to complete, so too must we call upon many facets of our character to solve personal problems. Often times, however, courage must be tapped first.
Unfortunately, not all scenarios tie up so neatly. Another student once approached me with a very profound problem. Her father, an alcoholic, was about to be released from prison and wanted to see her again. He had promised in the past to give up drinking for her, but had never successfully done so. She was simultaneously insulted, hurt, resentful and sad. She wanted a relationship with a sober father, not the drunk she had grown to know. I counseled her the best I could, leaving the decision to see him up to her. I hoped she realized by the end of our talk his situation had a lot more to do with his own being than with his love for her (she said more than once during our conversation, “If he loved me he would stop drinking”).
She returned to me a few weeks later, proclaiming she did see him, but it didn’t matter.
“He won’t quit,” she said sadly.
“He hasn’t quit. We don’t know what the future holds,” was my hopeful reply. If memory serves my tone did not support my words.
I don’t know if our conversation actually helped her, but we talked some more and I complimented her for her bravery. If the father exhibited the courage of his daughter he may have a chance. As of that moment the only comfort courage provided was that, despite hurt and fear, a teenage girl reached out even when she doubted her own strength. Whatever road her father’s life takes, her courage is her own.
From School to Society
Courage, of course, transcends the small stories of individual lives and can infuse groups of people with the energy to move forward. Every great social movement, every step taken against restrictive structures, every stand taken against well intentioned (but wrong headed) opposition requires courage. The dozens of young women (including but in no way limited to Rachel Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, Aly Raismon, and Megan Halicek) who have come forward to end Dr. Larry Nassar’s reign of terror are all courageous. Facing a less heinous, but no less insidious problem, Joyce Rankin, Dan Snowberger, and Shane Voss have decided enabling cell phone and social media addiction is not the province of schools. Due to their courage cell phones are banned in Mountain Middle School in Colorado. The list of courageous people in the modern world is, in fact, quite long. As a history teacher for over twenty years, however, I am going to reach into the past for my final examples.
From Society to History
Moral courage is our focus today. This form of courage demands that we look inward for those beliefs in need of redress instead of always demanding others weed their gardens while ours remain quite unkept. Abraham Lincoln is a fine example of this. We often fall into the trap of proclaiming a historic figure to be a solid rather than fluid figure. “Abraham Lincoln was…” is a shallow statement as he, perhaps unlike others changed over time. A word of caution, if you contend “people don’t change” the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the great Malcolm X proclaim from the mists of time the falsity of your words (3).
A careful study of Lincoln exposes a man wrestling with the issue of race and racial prejudices. The attitudes Lincoln held in 1847 had changed by the time 1858 rolled around. The views of 1858 stood in stark contrast to the one present in 1865. Stephen Oates points out in his book Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths:
He had come a long distance from the harassed political candidate of 1858, opposed to emancipation lest his political career be jeopardized, convinced that only the distant future could remove slavery from his troubled land, certain that only colonization could solve the ensuing problem of racial adjustment. He had also come a long way in the matter of Negro social and political rights,…The Proclamation had indeed liberated Abraham Lincoln, enabling him to act more consistently with his moral convictions (4).
For Lincoln to transform his beliefs he had to complete a thorough examination of them; mulling them over and admitting they needed changing. What could be more difficult, for don’t we all wish to believe our views correct? To stand up and admit to oneself a core belief (in Lincoln’s case his view of black men and women) incorrect is painful, but necessary if we wish to grow. Only by admitting, honestly admitting an error, not saying we are wrong just to appear magnanimous, can we truly begin to correct it. By struggling with his beliefs Lincoln not only, as Oates puts it, liberated himself, he earned the respect of the great black leader of the time, Frederick Douglass. Douglass admitted American blacks had come to admire, and some even love, the complicated man. Unfettered by the bonds of racial prejudice Lincoln would ask Douglass to review his second Inaugural Address, pointing out, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours” (5).
Douglass’ “Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln” (1876) reveals to us a quiet courage that allows patience and compassion to thrive. Douglass proclaimed:
“We (black leaders and the black community) saw him, measured him,…not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations,…; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses,…but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events,…we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln” (6).
I do so love the use of the word “somehow” in this passage. I can hear Douglass’ muted shock at the idea that Lincoln was the driving force of the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery accomplished by the President who sometimes proceeded with what could be described as overly cautious steps. In Douglass’ words I feel a challenge before me to not judge others by “isolated” events but to give way to allowing a broader picture to unfold. This is a fine example of Palmer’s call to give “the other” room to reveal him or herself to us. In so doing we may find ourselves, like Douglass, a bit shocked at who our true allies are. Conversely, if condemnation must arise, let it come from a place of solid standing so my discontent is righteous and not merely egocentric. Compassion sometimes requires the courage to punish the guilty. This must never be forgotten. Hopefully patience allows for more allies than foes to arise. Perhaps such patience, augmented by courage, allows unexpected gifts to arrive.
Douglass’ courage enabled him to keep faith with Lincoln, even when “..faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed” (7). The gift of faith rewarded. What could be greater? Such strength is inspirational. Such courage is almost otherworldly to me. Douglass stands a giant in my imagination for good reason. He deserves greater acclaim as a titan of our past.
I wonder, was the courage needed to lead the country through the Civil War possibly less than the courage Lincoln needed to alter his beliefs and become the man who could save the nation? As courage redeemed Lincoln so he redeemed a nation. Does it now fall to us to find the courage to keep the great experiment on course?
Character Challenge: Pick one action you have been wanting to take but have been nervous about facing. Remember – it does not have to be some great feat; it just has to be something you have been shying away from. Is there someone you should apologize to? Someone you should be thanking? Do you need help but are afraid to ask for it? Decide what to do and do it! Run the experiment and feel the power courage brings to our lives.
(1) Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass. 1997. The exact passage is found on page 37. I strongly recommend Palmer’s book to teachers. If you should read and enjoy it do pick up a copy of Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness.
(2) Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Del Rey. 2012.
(3) While I do not feature Malcolm X in this article students are often shocked to learn about his transformation after visiting Mecca. When teaching about Malcolm I present the three phases of Malcolm X; pre-prison, post-prison (pre-Mecca), and post-Mecca.
(4) Oates, Stephen. Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths. Harper Perennial. 1994. (p 118).
(5) ibid. (p 119).
(6) Frederick Douglas. “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” Washington D.C. April 14, 1876.