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Nourishing Ideas > Foundational Values > Courage

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

Here's a curiosity. Next to love, courage is the second most dominant theme in literature. Wise people throughout history have argued that courage is the basic virtue that makes all other virtues possible. The popular media bombard us with constant references to courage, courageous people, courageous actions. Yet paradoxically, little has been written to define courage or describe its underlying nature!

There appears to be a widespread assumption that everyone knows what courage is. But do we? We use the word "courage" to describe equally the actions of Hollywood actors, soldiers, bungee jumpers, firefighters, Olympic athletes, and political leaders fighting oppression. Are all these examples of courage? Or are we confusing courage with other qualities such as discipline, technical prowess, endurance - perhaps even foolhardiness?

The answer matters because misusing the term insults and undermines genuine acts of heroism. There is a real danger that these superficial and misplaced references to courage will erode its noble characteristics just as they now overshadow everyday acts of courage by ordinary people. We risk replacing the authenticity of true courage with drifting, anchorless sentiment.

So - what exactly is courage? Churchill described it as "the first of all human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others." Without courage our beliefs about justice, honesty, love and compassion become merely sentiments - perhaps sincerely believed, but easily discarded in the face of real or perceived opposition. Courage enables us to take the risks needed to speak up for, achieve and support what we most value in life. It ensures that our beliefs are grounded in action, the core of our spirit and the common good.

We would argue that genuine courage involves three elements:

Emotion: Courage is derived from the old French word corage, meaning "heart and spirit". Etymologically it means "the ability to stand by one's heart or, one's core." Heart is the centre of feeling. Courageous people pay attention to what is in their heart.

Values: Courage is inspired by beliefs about what is the good, right or proper thing to do, and anchored by a vision of the common good.

Action: Courage involves action. You can't "test courage cautiously" - you have to act on what you feel and what you value.

Of these three elements, perhaps the one we associate most closely with courage is action. And because action is about doing, there's a tendency to think of courage above all in physical terms. This is not hard to understand. Since ancient times courage has been associated with war, and warriors were seen as the ultimate manifestation of courage. And certainly courage often involves placing one's physical being in danger, even risking one's life.

But there is also another kind of courage: moral courage - the ability to face up to ethical dilemmas and moral wrongdoings, firmly and confidently, without flinching or retreating. Or as William Ian Miller, in his book, The Mystery of Courage, defines it: "the capacity to overcome the fear of shame and humiliation in order to admit one's mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to denounce injustice, and also to defy immoral and imprudent orders." Moral courage may not lead to personal rewards or even to success. It is purely about making good decisions, doing the right thing, leading a good life.

Courage in all its manifestations allows us to "see through" a vision of the world we want, not just for ourselves but also for each other. It provides a sacred flame inspiring us to struggle against the odds. Whether we are destined to play out the courage of our convictions on the wider world stage or in the minutiae of our daily lives, courage is essential as we strive to build a more ethical organization, community, society or world.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.
        - Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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Related Items
Books of interest:
The Mystery of Courage, by William Ian Miller
The Four-Fold Way, by Angeles Arrien

Other resources:
The Institute for Global Ethics
A global research organization developed to promote ethical behaviour. Download "Moral Courage: A White Paper" from their home page.
The Giraffe Project
"Honouring people who stick their necks out for the common good." The site has a special section for young people.
The website of the courageous Aung San Suu Kyi and 8 other women Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
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