Saturday, August 2, 2014

Courage: An Active Virtue

"You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor." ~Aristotle
“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.” ~ Lao Tzu  
I've spent a fair amount of my life chewing over the qualities, attributes, ideas surrounding, meanings attached to, implications of, possible ramifications of, confusions over: Courage, authenticity and integrity.

These were things I delved into in graduate school, though that was hopelessly out of fashion in uber analytic American philosophy. So this became a personal, somewhat private, obsession. I wrote my masters thesis on Integrity but that question remains unsettled as all essential questions often do. But recently I've become more consumed by questions concerning courage. Perhaps it's because I fear I lack this most primary of virtues. Or perhaps it's because I fail to see courage when it's there.

 And I wonder; Am I possibly confused about what courage looks like? What it actually IS?.

So what is courage? (and no. This is not the first, nor is it likely the last, time I've written on this) Well, obviously one way of looking at it is as the virtue of acting in the face of fear, danger, standing your ground (literally or morally). It's feeling fear, recognizing that a situation is perhaps threatening, and dealing with it rationally while still feeling the fear. As Aristotle says: Courage is feeling just the right amount of fear - not too much (cowardice)  and not too little (foolhardiness).  Courage is dealing with a situation based on the realities of the situation itself PLUS your individual ability to respond to the situation. Bah blah blah. I'm not so interested in this kind of courage right now.

Because courage is also something else - something perhaps even bigger. It's not just a reactive virtue. That is, it's not just something we need when some situation is foisted upon us - it is a virtue we need in order to create a meaningful life - and that is the ACTIVE side of courage. When something is pressed upon us we have little choice but to respond in some way - and hopefully we will do well. But what about the courage when we act on something even when we are not forced into it.

Runners get this. As silly as running is, we are a little bit courageous every time we step out the door for a run (it's safer to stay on the couch or stay in bed) - every time we sign up for a race - every time we toe the line with butterflies in our stomachs. AND especially when we do something that pushes us out of our comfort zone - and where that zone lies is entirely individual. And that is an active choice. It doesn't happen to us. We do not have to do this thing. We choose to do it. And that choice changes us forever. We are not the same person after as before. That act of courage contributes to our characters - a courageous character - whether we see it as such or not. But, if you just do the same thing over and over, if you do the things you are pretty sure you can do, does that require courage? Yes, I think it does a bit, but not as much as when we do something that scares us.

We (like to feel/believe that we) are all safe in our little corners of the universe - the ones where we feel confident, in control, safe, or at the very least, not in peril (of course this is a colossal lie, but it makes us FEEL we have control). But that is not what we are here for. What we are here for is to discover what we have to give, where we can go with this one life we know we have (others are as yet unconfirmed). And every single time we do one thing that makes us feel uncomfortable and scared but also a little bit excited, then our lives become greater - for that spreads out into all aspects of life.

Think about something that scares you but also makes you smile inside and out, and you feel a little gitty at the mere thought of it - at the audaciousness of it. And then do that.
 “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” ~ William Faulkner
Courage is found in unlikely places.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

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