The Psychology of Courage: Searching for Inspiration

I’ve been pretty depressed lately. From ongoing conflicts across the globe to Mother Nature showing us her power to budget cutting and clueless elected officials, I haven’t had much to be optimistic about. This is the kind of depression that is difficult to treat because it isn’t situational or episodic, it’s systemic and completely out of my control. Medication won’t ameliorate my condition and even exercise and diet won’t touch it. I have been spending my time and money trying to help where I can but even those things haven’t done much for my mood. It all seems so overwhelming.

In an effort to cheer myself up, I’ve immersed myself in my favorite forms of entertainment – books and television shows. Old favorites like the Ender’s Game series, Firefly, Star Wars and the Harry Potter series were revisited while newer loves like The Hunger Games trilogy, the Millennium series (beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and The Vampire Diaries also made the list. Clearly, I like science fiction.

There is something deeper than mere genre though in my decision to use these specific books and television shows to help me feel better. In courage is facing fearevery single one of them, people (and ok, aliens and vampires too) do the best they can in the face of overwhelming odds. They continue doing the right thing even though it may not make a difference or they may die. In short, the characters in these series demonstrate great courage.

That started me thinking about the psychology of courage. Of course, it is easy for fictional characters to make difficult choices because, well, they’re imaginary. However, once I started reflecting on it, I came up with any number of real world examples. There are the people in the Middle East who are rising up against their oppressors and the many examples during wars including most especially those who shelter potential victims at the risk of their own lives. Another moving demonstration of courage occurred during the 2006 massacre in an Amish schoolhouse. Two of the captured Amish girls – ages 13 and 11 – stepped forward and asked the gunman if he would kill them first and spare the eight other girls. Such courage and selflessness so young is truly inspirational!

But what exactly is courage? It is a quality that has been promoted throughout much of human history from major philosophers and teachers to least one classic film. Confucius included courage as one of his three virtues (reason and passion being the other two) and Plato taught that harmony is achieved via cooperation between the rational (wisdom), spirited (courage), and appetitive (feeling) virtues. Even the Wizard of Oz endorsed courage as something to be sought as illustrated by the journey of the Cowardly Lion. The Scarecrow and the Tinman were seeking wisdom and heart respectively.

Courage is a virtue but what does that mean for every day living? Many people define it as a lack of fear but it isn’t that. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” Thus, courage is doing something despite the fear but isn’t it more than that? To answer that question, I searched for and found many definitions for courage. The one I like best comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It stated that courage is the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Put more simply, courage is the willingness to take risks and move forward regardless of the personal price.

If you look at courage in that fashion, then I see people every day who demonstrate courage. I see it in those struggling with anxiety who, despite their fear, learn skills in order to do what has to be done. I see courage in the faces of those with chronic conditions who try new treatments or simply accept their fate with dignity. I see it in parents who do things contrary to what they have been taught so that their kids will have a better life. And I see courage in kids who stand up to bullies, workers who speak up to their bosses, people who unite with others to make a world a better place and even in those rare politicians who vote for their conscience versus what is politically expedient.

As Robert Kennedy said, “Few men [sic] are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

So what does this analysis of courage mean for me and my depressed mood? Mainly it stands as an inspiration and motivation for me not to give up the fight. I can see that other people are being courageous in both large and small ways and it gives me hope. It reminds me that, in order to make a difference, I too must demonstrate courage and do what I believe is right. By doing this, perhaps I can be a beacon of change and help others to develop courage. Most of all, being courageous helps me to be a better person.

Keshavan Nair explained it best by saying, “With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity.” This does make me less depressed. However, it also makes me realize that I must allow myself times in which I do not have to be courageous. I can choose my battles and give myself time to relax and recharge so that I can be courageous when it truly matters. In short, analyzing courage has given me a place to start.

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