How to Be Courageous (Even When You’re Afraid): Part I

courageI’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately—how it is the quintessential quality of heroes, how it is something we all want more of, and how it is something most of us believe we lack. But before I get into how we can become more courageous, here are a few of the reasons why this topic has been on my mind in the first place:

1) Yesterday was MLK Day.

In addition to living a life of courage, Dr. King sure knew how to describe it in a way that gives goose-bumps:

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency ask the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

2) Yesterday I saw American Sniper.

I certainly believe that our soldiers exhibit tremendous courage on a regular basis, but one of the things that struck me about this film was the way it showcases the courage of military families in general. This excellent article describes the intense emotions those back home experience on a regular basis, and the courage it takes just to go on living a “normal” life under extraordinary stresses.

“The movie didn’t show what came next. I wished it would have. The throwing up, reflexively, again and again, out of pure fear. The dry heaves, streams of snot, and the feeling of your own body temperature dropping as you curl into a fetal position and stay like that for hours.

The movie didn’t show how you must use every ounce of energy just to exist through the two days of wondering if you’re a widow yet, and then relaxing a bit on the third day because the casualty notification team has not come. If he were dead, they would have been here by now.”

If getting up and carrying on after regular scares like the one described above doesn’t take courage, I don’t know what does.

3) Rejection Results in Fear

And a few days ago I experienced rejection. I won’t go into the details, but I now have two options: 1) Give in to the fear of failure and give up, or 2) Use the door that unexpectedly closed in my face as an opportunity to burst through another. I’m sure many fellow writers out there are familiar with rejection and the fear of failure (if not, you’re doing something wrong), and it helps to know that we’re not the only ones (which is why I watch J.K. Rowling’s speech The Fringe Benefits of Failure at least once a year).

4) Courage Breeds Creativity (to return to Dr. King)

Like I said, it doesn’t take much for the writing life suck you down into a cesspit of fear. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of writing the “wrong” kind of story (i.e. one that isn’t marketable at this exact moment), fear of what others will think. It’s paralyzing, and it certainly doesn’t make you a more creative person. In fact, it often seems that those who create without a care about any of the things mentioned above, but rather because they have something to say that’s worth hearing, end up being the ones who produce art that is actually transformative.

5) I’ve Been Reading Works by Ancient Greeks

And the ancient Greeks thought courage was kind of a big deal.

Take the Iliad, where Hector is frequently described as the most courageous of Trojans, even though he isn’t as great of a warrior as Achilles and knows he’s fated to die at this enemy’s hand. One of the main ways Hector actually shows his courage is through his willingness to accept those things that are beyond his control, along with his willingness to face his fate no matter the outcome.

“Why so much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you – it’s born with us the day that we are born.” ~The Iliad

Aristotle was another ancient Greek who had a lot to say about courage. He describes courage as a virtue that can only be gained by…acting courageously. In other words, we rarely (if ever) feel brave, so if we wait for this elusive sensation we will never become courageous. We only gain courage by taking actions—even the smallest “baby steps”—that demand courage. Take public speaking, for example. Even though America is a fairly extroverted nation, public speaking tends to rank as one of our top fears (surpassing even death!). Yet the only way to get over the fear of public speaking is to…engage in public speaking! If you wait for the fear to disappear before giving it a go, you’ll never do it and you’ll definitely never become good at it. Similarly, the only way to become courageous is to put oneself in uncomfortable, challenging situations where courage is required.

Stay tuned for Part II…

Courage: The Testing Point

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. ~ C.S. Lewis
One of my favorite scenes from The Hunger Games movie is the moment Katniss prepares to enter the tube that will carry her into the arena and the battle for her life. Jennifer Lawrence plays the part to perfection, giving us a Katniss who physically shakes with anticipation, but maintains her silent strength. The movie made me think a lot about courage–that essential virtue that, as C.S. Lewis says, forms the foundation for all the rest.


But what does it mean to have courage? And is it truly the quintessential virtue of a hero or heroine? I think so. When I envision all the characters I love and admire–from books and from real life–they almost always embody courage in one form or another. Virtue itself is often defined as those traits of moral excellence that enable one to live a “fully human life.”
That’s why courage is about more than being bold. Surely Katniss is that…but then again, so is Cato. Courage is not simply bravery, but the ability to maintain one’s humanity even in the most dire circumstances. The courageous person does not lack fear, but they do not act from a place where fear is the prime motivator. A heroine like Katniss embodies courage by siding with the weak and vulnerable, taking time to honor the grave of a fallen friend, and finding a “third way” among the oppressive Capitol’s limited choices of “kill or be killed.”

From courage, all the other virtues spring…compassion, prudence, justice. But what does courage mean to you? I’d be interested in hearing about other heroes from literature and history that people find courageous…