Courage is not always grand gestures of heroism. It doesn’t always look like great feats of valor. Courage is not reserved only for war, physical battles, or terrible circumstances. Culturally, we have many misconceptions about courage; what it is, means, looks like, and how it behaves.
I believe courage comes often in small moments. Courage doesn’t have to come busting through with the strength to jump off buildings or move mountains. It isn’t fearless. True courage is often quiet. This nature of courage can be a misunderstood, overlooked, or undervalued virtue. Small moments of bravery may be labeled as simple expectations met.
As my daily journey of getting to know the nature of my fellow humans continues, one thing becomes abundantly clear: we have different skills and abilities, and we are not all starting or playing with the same “hand.” Each person has been dealt different cards in this life, and these are shifted and changed over time with the nature of upbringing, experiences, traumas, temperament and environment, to name a few variables. Courage for one person may look like gathering the strength to get out of bed in the morning to meet another day. Another may require little to no courage to meet their morning. For one, courage may look like reaching out and asking for needed help, risking or embracing the feeling of shame or judgment that may come as a result. For another, this ask is not a task that requires effort or fear. The varied level of courage required to do a job depends in part on our personal fears or insecurities. Judging a person’s level of courage by their level of ability or level of function is a mistake. Courage assessment requires something else; it requires purpose and heart.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage doesn’t require that one becomes a person with fewer fears. Courage is the thing that we do in the face of fear. We bring it along. Is courage really courageous in the absence of all fear? When people are described as fearless, I wonder if it’s true. Are they really fearless, or are they bringing that fear along for the ride and doing the scary thing anyway? Because, let’s face it, fear is part of our human experience-a natural emotion that does have positive intentions-like keeping us safe, even if sometimes it rises to unhealthy levels. Our experience of fear, as we continue on in our own courage cultivation journeys, tends to decrease as we practice. The interplay between courage and fear is deeply personal. One’s ability to healthily embrace uncertainty in a courageous way is likely to grow when fostered with empathy, kindness, and nonjudgment. Deep, meaningful connection and compassion will allow courage to bloom, whether it be in ourselves or those we love. It takes courage to be silly, to say “I love you,” to go on that interview, to have that difficult conversation, to jump into the race, to drop into the bowl, to slow down and take care of yourself, to stay engaged, to let go when it’s time, to take the test, try the treatment, to return the phone call, to acknowledge how you feel.
Sadly, courage can also take the form of standing up for what we believe, even if it means possible disconnection with those we love. The courage to speak truth in the face of unkindness may result in dissention or disconnection. Courage often involves risk and uncertain outcomes. It may mean getting laughed at, mocked, removed from a conversation, blocked, hurt, misunderstood, or rejected. Sometimes, communicating and holding healthy boundaries takes tremendous courage. Sometimes, making a mindful choice not to engage also takes courage.
Merriam-Webster defines cowardice as “a lack of courage or firmness of purpose.” Defining a word’s antonym merely as a lack of something is tricky. Apathy doesn’t take courage. It’s easy to say “I just don’t care” but I wonder, is it true? Is it due to a lack of firmness of purpose? Courage requires intention behind action, and often, with some degree of fear on board—while doing it anyway.
I’ve worked with a number of people who don’t see their own actions as courageous because they don’t believe they had a choice in the situation except to act. I believe this is another gross misconception. In any deeply challenging matter, we do have choices, even if that choice is to do nothing, or pretend we don’t care. Those who choose to respond, to act, to make meaning out of the situation—to care and to do something—absolutely have courage. Rising to the occasion of an ailing family member, takes courage. Finding out that something horrible has happened, and responding by trying to help, takes courage. Losing a job, and then choosing to take time to figure out next best steps, takes courage. Staying home with kids—takes a lot of courage. Surviving rejection, having somebody leave, and then making the best of the situation while picking up the pieces, takes courage. Essential workers going to work each day (even if the reason is because they can’t afford not to), takes courage. Falling flat on your face, and deciding to get back up again, takes courage. Knowing you must respond to a statement, even if it means crying—that ugly cry response takes courage. Living purposefully through a pandemic—takes a hell of a lot of courage.
Take heart, live with purpose, love your people fiercely, and give yourself credit for your tiny moments of courage.