The wisest things said about courage are steeped in ambiguity and paradox.
To most of us, courage is little more than confronting a dangerous situation without flinching.
The individual exhibits valor and bravery: is fearless, assured, dauntless. In the vernacular, such people might be considered “gutsy”—even as, well, “cocky.” And undeniably, we view courage as what heroes are made of. But, to begin to question the many conventional assumptions surrounding this attribute, let’s take a look at the following quote:
“A coward is a hero with a wife, kids, and a mortgage.” (Marvin Kitman)
So maybe there’s more that’s relative about the term courage—and its first cousin, heroism—than meets the eye. Moreover, consider this quote:
“Courage is nine-tenths context. What is courageous in one setting can be foolhardy in another, and even cowardly in a third.” (Joseph Epstein)
What I’ll be doing in this post is making some fundamental observations about the state of mind, emotion, and spirit that accompany the supposedly admirable trait of courage. And in many ways writers have commented on these counter-intuitive features for millennia. Among a variety of things that I’ll be illustrating, what I think this post will help you realize is that courage cannot exist without its being coupled with fear, and also that the term (contrary to what most people assume) is morally neutral—at times frustratingly ambiguous, even negative.
As regards fear as actually a prerequisite for courage, I emphasized this curious circumstance in an earlier post, entitled “Courage in Relationships: Conquering Vulnerability and Fear.” There I remarked that “without a moment’s hesitation before taking on something felt to be hazardous, the act would exemplify not so much courage as foolhardiness or mindless impulsivity.” So it’s the inner resolve not to be governed by fear that makes courage a quality universally admired.