Two dictionaries in my house define courage as follows:

  1. the attitude or response of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, instead of withdrawing from it; the quality of being fearless or brave; valor; pluck
  2. the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear

I choose to use my own modified definition of courage, marrying parts of both dictionary definitions and adding a condition:

  1. the attitude, or quality of mind or spirit, that enables one to face and respond to difficulty, danger, or pain, in spite of one’s fear

In my view, acting fearlessly is not acting courageously. Courage, in my view, requires the conscious decision to behave as if one were fearless in the face of an environment in which the consequences of one’s behavior are likely to bring about difficulty, danger, or pain and, therefore, naturally instill fear.  Yet even my modified definition fails to get to the heart of what I believe courage entails. Courage goes beyond overcoming fear. It involves overcoming the odds, as well. Courage allows one to behave in a way counter to one’s personal best interests in situations or environments in which the likelihood of encountering difficulty, danger, or pain are significantly higher than not encountering those condition. Courage enables behavior that has a better chance of a negative than a positive outcome for the person exhibiting courage.

But there is another side to it; the person exhibiting courage does so in order to increase the chances of a positive outcome for someone or something else. Dashing in front of an oncoming car just to see if one can do it does not exhibit courage; dashing in front of an oncoming car to pull a person out of its path does.

It gets more complex, though, when one’s action or inaction involves multiple ‘others.’ For example, dashing in front of a moving car to save a child may be noble, but if the consequences might be not only in the actor’s death but his family’s anguish, is courage the right word? It takes courage to put oneself in a situation in which one risks death by saving a stranger, but is courage effectively annulled by the potential to cause lifelong grief to a loved one? The action might be viewed as courageous by some, but others might view it as a choice to assign greater value to strangers than to family.

I have no answers. Only questions.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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