Tuesday, December 23, 2014

courage, courage, courage

I have come to believe that many personal issues can be resolved once and for all if only we possessed one particular trait.  This trait is courage.

Do you realize how magnificent this piece of news is?  I mean, some of us are struggling to figure out what to do with our lives, and here is an answer.  This one thing.  Courage.  Sure, getting this news won't get the problems solved, but knowing what to do in a tricky situation is certainly an important part of the work that leads to the solution.

So many times in my life, the thing that made the biggest difference between an unsatisfying situation and a satisfying situation was courage.  I find it being as simple as saying "if I have courage, then I win."  It is like the following two equations:

have courage = claim victory

do not have courage = do not claim victory

Courage trumps other qualities

When it comes to getting things done, I think that courage is just as important as other highly desirable qualities out there, if not more.  Among these qualities are discipline, wisdom, optimism, curiosity.  Indeed, there are many others and they each have their just place, but I think that courage is one that is almost always necessary.  Take the virtue of discipline for starters.  It is good to have discipline, but it usually takes courage to retain this discipline when the going gets tough.  And in a life worth living, the going almost always gets tough at some point.  Wisdom, too, has great value.  Yet without the courage to apply it when faced with a difficult situation, wisdom ends up taking an unfortunate hit.  It's like an idea that does not happen, or a "non-idea".  Optimism too is yet another notable quality.  But for someone who is generally disposed to pessimism but who is nevertheless determined to change that for good, a regular dose of courage is needed to carry out the actions that lead to an optimistic outlook.  It is like replacing one daily habit with another.  Since habits are ingrained within us, they are easy to keep.  To change them is necessarily difficult, and to overcome such difficulty, we need courage.  And then there is curiosity, which can make life richer for anyone who possesses it.  But to learn new things and to live new experiences, one must go beyond their comfort zone or what they already know, which may require courage.  Also worthy of mention are traits such as strength, perseverance, and resilience.  You could argue whether or not each of these traits was related to the other, but it would seem largely impossible to discuss any of them without recognizing the pertinence of courage.

Even the popular topics of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth all have something to do with courage.

Get more familiar with courage

Given how unpredictable life is, it is inevitable that we will have to confront the question of courage at various times in our lives, whether at 15, at 30, or at 60 years old.  Some people even deal with it everyday.  I know that I am one of these people.  In fact, I go through moments that test my courage several times during the day.  If we all agreed that the question of courage pervades our lives, wouldn't it be useful to study it more and be more aware of it, only to see how much good could come out of having more of it?

What a few other (and better qualified) people think about courage

Well, all this has been nothing but my opinion.  What do other people think on the topic of courage?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University and former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, notes in his seminal book Flow that courage and the ability to overcome hardship are the reasons why average people admire the individuals that they admire the most.  He even states that the simple act of admiring courage is a positive trait in itself.  Quoting the Stoic philosopher Seneca, he writes: "The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good that belong to adversity are to be admired."

Martin Seligman, a Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and former President of the American Psychological Association, writes in his Positive Psychology Chapter, prepared for the Handbook of Positive Psychology that "we have discovered that there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, the capacity for flow and insight, to name several."  As it is mentioned first in this list, courage can surely be considered an important quality to have in life, especially in tough times.

Defining courage

So what is this thing called courage that we have been discussing so far anyway?

Here is the definition of the term according to the TV5 website (and one that I truly love):

"Force de caractère qui fait supporter la souffrance ou braver le danger."  In English, this translates to "strength of character that enables one to bear suffering or to confront danger."  Less prominent in this definition is the idea that suffering or danger are prerequisites for courage.  In other words, strength of character is great in itself, but if it is accompanied neither by the risk of suffering nor by the risk of danger, there is no courage.

With all due respect to this dictionary definition, I like to simplify matters sometimes by saying that a person has courage when he (or she) does something different from the usual that poses an emotional risk to him.  In other words, he does something makes him emotionally vulnerable.  Unless we are all robots programmed to always act the same way in a given circumstance, we can comprehend that we are generally capable of choosing a plan of action different from the usual, even if this plan makes us experience pain, real or imagined.  For example, most passengers on the Paris metro do not say bonjour (hello) to the person seated or standing beside them, even though they are technically capable of saying bonjour, even though they have already talked to unfamiliar people many times before.  In fact, not much is said on the metro, unless it is the case of people who already know each other, people on the telephone with someone elsewhere, or people soliciting some money or other favors from passengers.  It would thus be courageous to speak to someone in such an environment, but only if it posed an emotional risk to the person did it.  On the other hand, for a person who was self-confident in social settings, saying hello to just about anyone and just about anywhere would be second nature, and not necessarily courageous.


If we had more courage, we would no longer have to care too much about how we look to others.  Instead, we would focus on appreciating what is uniquely valuable about us.  In the process, our self-esteem and our self-worth would increase.

If we had more courage, we would no longer have to accumulate products promising us the good life.  Instead, we would focus on creating something beneficial out of the circumstances that we find ourselves in.  In the process, our self-confidence and our sense of initiative would increase.

If we had more courage, we would no longer have to depend on the lives of other people, famous or not, for our own pleasure.  Instead, we would remember that we are natural sources of excitement, and we would focus more on sharing this wealth that we have always possessed with others.  In the process, our sense of purpose and our overall well-being would increase.

Courage exists when it is shown

Rather than talking about having courage, I think that it is more appropriate to talk about showing courage.  After all, telling someone to have courage is not very actionable.  Seriously, how would you go about having something as abstract as courage?  I don't really know, so I suggest the idea of showing courage.  Showing requires taking actions that are clearly perceived by the senses.  For example, leaving the circle of friends to go talk with someone unfamiliar at a concert.  Revealing troubling but important news to one's parents.  Going in for the kiss on a blind date.  These are all but a few demonstrations of courage, provided that one is exposing himself to emotional risk when taking the action.  And it turns out that when we show courage in action, it is indisputable that we have it.

Few things are greater than courage with a purpose

I don't know about you, but I just want do more things that specifically give me the opportunity to show courage.  Even if I fail repeatedly.  Even if I do nothing in the end.  In other words, the more I think that a particular action demonstrates courage in comparison to others in a given situation, the more interested I am in pursuing that action.  Like they say, "no pain, no gain."  That said, showing courage in itself, albeit admirable, does not go that far.  I think that it is more worthwhile while doing something meaningful.  For example, there was a time a few years ago when I was making efforts to swim longer and faster in the pool and making other efforts to interact more with people that I passed on the street.  I considered both endeavors were emotionally risky and thus they were opportunities to show courage.  In addition, both had value in my life.  After pursuing them together for some time, I realized that I experienced joy and felt satisfied more often with my exploits on the street than with those in the pool.  From this discovery, I concluded that breaking personal records while swimming was less meaningful to me ‒ at that time ‒ than striving to relate better with random people.  It made more sense to me than to demonstrate courage in social situations with unfamiliar people.  So, given the numerous opportunities for showing courage that exist in the pool, on the street, or just about anywhere, I think that it helps to have a sort of filter for choosing those ‒ when the choice is available ‒ that bring the most personal satisfaction.

We have a choice to make

With some feeling of guilt, I must say that any talk of courage within our society, including this very post, would not need to be if we never shied away from the possibility of suffering or danger while pursuing our goals and desires.  But it's too late now.  Many of us go through lengths to avoid pain, so the notion of courage has to exist.  At the same time, some of us settle for admiring those who routinely show courage as if it was an innate quality that only a few people possessed.  Regardless of where we are on the path of life, we can still make a choice on the matter for the sake of our personal satisfaction.  This choice is the one between being content with avoiding the risk of suffering and danger and striving to be as courageous as we need to be.

We have discovered that there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, the capacity for flow and insight, to name several. Much of the task of prevention in this new century will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to understand and learn how to foster these virtues in young people.

‒ Martin Seligman

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