Courage – It Makes All the Difference

Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

We are all courageous in one way or another, though curiously, most of us are often not aware when we are acting courageously. This is especially true in instances where we act reflexively to some crisis rather than intentionally to overcome a perceived obstacle. Consider the following reflexive acts of courage:

The mother who cannot swim and jumps into the pool to save her drowning infant

The soldier under enemy fire who drags a wounded comrade to safety. 

In cases such as these, individuals act before they think—their actions are automatic. When asked about it later, these individuals typically do not perceive their actions to be courageous. Rather, they describe their behavior as “doing what I had to do” with no forethought.

In contrast, intentional courage entails overcoming fear, inhibition, or a perceived barrier prior to making a decision to act.  An example of intentional courage is a college classmate Pat. Pat was born with cerebral palsy that left her severely disabled. As a fellow student, she showed incredible tenacity in the face of physical obstacles, especially in the way she typed her term papers — she held a wooden peg between her teeth and typed one key at a time. Pat was determined to pursue her goal of a B.A. and courageously overcame her disability to achieve it.

Below are some additional instances of intentional courage:

1. The employee who blows the whistle on some wrongdoing knowing s/he will pay dearly for it.

2. The individual who faces a serious loss without letting it sink him (or her).

3. The woman who makes a major life/career change in the face of financial uncertainty.

Why is courage so important in our lives?

To act courageously strengthens us and gives us confidence. However, it is the results of a courageous decision that may leave the deepest impression. In the words of author Anias Nin:

“Life expands or contracts in direct proportion to one’s courage.”

Let’s look at the life expanding results for each of the above illustrations of courage:

1. In blowing the whistle on an unjust behavior (e.g. bullying) or illegal incident (e.g. insider trading), the courageous person’s act may serve as a catalyst to produce positive change that benefits others and/or society.

Result: One behaves in accordance with one’s core values and, as a result, produces positive change.

2. At some time in our lives we face serious losses. Initially, these losses can be personally devastating. But when loss is faced with courage, it can lead to a deepened compassion and awaken one to the present and the importance of one’s significant relationships.

Result: One grows in maturity, lives more in the present, enjoys and values the time with those one loves.

3. Sometimes we feel the deep pull to make a major life or career change at a time when such a change would require sacrifices (e.g. a reduction in salary that results in reducing our standard of living).

Result: One chooses to make the change, adapts to the necessary adjustments, discovers a new world, and wonders why one didn’t do it earlier!

Courage to make potentially positive changes in our lives in the light of risk or sacrifice always calls us to nonconformity, to leave the status quo. Courage is the engine that takes us where our hearts want to go.

As Robert Frost writes, at the end of his poem, The Road Not Taken,

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Many people have been inspired by Frost’s poem and also, by Mary Oliver’s poem, below, which addresses the courage to act in times of strong resistance. We will leave you with it.

The Journey, by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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13 Responses to Courage – It Makes All the Difference

  1. Meredith Moraine says:

    Good one! There’s something really interesting in here about long-term courage, or courage over the long haul, that involves the quality of determination. I’m also interested in the courage to look inward, to bring the dark places to light, to work with weaknesses. . .taking responsibility for one’s life and character. We often think of courage as involving actions, but there’s also the courage of engaging fully with life, blossoming into the fullest expression possible.

  2. You are so right that the journey inward requires courage and is a prelude to the journey outward. Once again thanks for weighing in on this topic.

  3. Maria says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been deeply contemplating this concept of courage lately. I’ve been engaged in several activities that I’ve intentionally chosen to creat some level of discomfort to get me out of my comfort zone as a learning experience and a challenge. These activities are: indoor rock wall climbing, sing karaoke in front of a live band (I can’t really sing), and high tree rope courses/ziplining to manage my anxiety about heights, etc. These activities are meant to learn more about myself, challenge myself to take more risks (calculated risks, but risks nonetheless), and develop the courage within . Your post is helping me process all of that. Thanks.

    • cedricj says:

      Facing our fears and acting anyway is a courageous act. Years ago when I treated people with anxiety challenges the treatment of choice was a combination of relaxation exercises and systematic desensitization. The latter was an exposure to the least anxiety provoking stimuli and then moving on to higher levels of anxiety. You have chosen to jump into the deep end of your anxiety. That takes a lot of guts. I wish you well. I would love to hear how you do and so would most of the readers of this blog. Please stay in touch and let us know the results of your courageous experiment.

  4. This post moved me deeply. That Anais Nin quote is one I have had on a favorite bookmark for many, many years and is a touchstone when the world gets to be a bit too much and the voices telling me I “can’t” a bit too loud. And then, good old Mary Oliver! For me, the heart of courage is what she is talking about, and that is finding my own authentic voice as I go along. I do believe that is what we are here for, along with skipping stones and dancing on tabletops. Thank you..

    • Kris says:

      Both you and Meredith are pointing to a type of courage that has the greatest potential for living our best life. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

  5. Jodie Johnson says:

    Thank you Cedric for the piece on “courage”. It has inspired me to think about my current situation in a new light. After months of processing and wallowing in deep felt emotions I am encouraged to take a new tact and get on with my life. Having the courage to go forward with grace and dignity and to face my profound sadness isn’t at all easy, and I know the painful moments will continue to come, but I am ready to recharge myself and go forward with all the courage I can muster.

    Thank you for another enlightening post.

  6. cedricj says:

    Jodie, the sadness that comes with your intense loss is much like a timed-release capsule. It comes to us in waves over a period of time and is parallel to our growth. However, your willingness to allow pain to be your teacher will continue to open you to new aspects of your person. And that discovery process is an exciting adventure. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. cindy Hoong says:

    I am not sure if it is courage or just plain stupid of me. I have just been rejected as graduate student. I started this journey about 9 years ago. Had to stop, short of completing the thesis, due to health and personal reasons. Few months ago my ‘committment’ was terminated and I thought I would go back to finish it. Today I received a lengthy explainations why I do not fit in the profile! I was toying with if I should appeal or not appeal (in NL I can appeal for reconsideration). I think I am going to just send them this blog-post AND not a word of defence from me. By the way my thesis is about leadership, AI and cultures.

  8. Rebecca Durden Raab says:

    Very good insights. Thanks you two. For me, rescuing animals has taught me more about courage, compassion, living in the moment, facing and accepting loss. Every day they teach me something new. They have also taught me how to live with and open myself to other humans.
    For me, that takes a lot of courage.

  9. cedricj says:

    Cindy, it takes amazing courage to navigate life’s deep disappointments. Don’t let your dream die.
    Thanks for your response to the blog.

  10. Robert Conrow says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness in writing this piece. I’d not thought before about the different forms of courage as being ‘reflexive’ and ‘intentional.’ By making this distinction, I discovered that I had exhibited a bit more courage in my life–namely the ‘intentional’– than I’d previously thought. Seems that courage of this sort forms itself in the recesses of our character which, of necessity, builds up over time. However, to not lose our reserve, we need to continually test it, make sure it’s still there. When my father went sky diving at the age of 91, I asked him why he did it. He said he wanted to know if he’d be afraid, and he then told me that he hadn’t been. Perhaps that’s why he’s now gearing up for his 100th birthday.

  11. cedricj says:

    Courage runs in the family. Thanks for your comment

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