Written with 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 or incredible adversity 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
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
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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