Finding Courage

If there is one statement we could all utter with equal honesty, it might be: “It's not easy being me.” It's a claim that seems to ring true whether spoken through tears, smirks or giggles, in good times or in bad.

Shakespeare advised that, above all else, “to thine own self be true.” But he never said it would be easy. It takes courage, sometimes a lot of courage. Courage keeps you true to yourself. Your courage drives you to make your point, share the feeling, donate blood, take the exam. apologize, tell the joke, and admit you don't know. In short, courage is the energy that puts all other values into action.


Courage does not imply an absence of fear. Rather it insists you do what you believe is right in spite of your fear. Maybe John Wayne said it best when he described courage as “being scared to death - and saddling up anyway.” It takes more than a horse to ride into the source of one's fears. It takes courage.

Although many have defined courage as a concept or an idea, I've never found these descriptions to be of much help. When we are scared, we don't usually need a theory. We need a push or a pull. More than anything, we need a force that moves us to do what we know is right. Courage is this force.

So we begin with this simple understanding: courage is a force, a force that puts our consciences and our values into action. And this leads to what may be the most important message of this article. Courage is there for everyone, at all times. This force does not discriminate. It makes itself available to all.

Owner of the Ocean

When I was a kid, I thought I owned the ocean.

I lived a couple of hundred yards from the ocean. Every kid called the portion of the beach at the end of his street, “my beach.” I guess I took things a step further and assumed that if it were “my beach.” it must also be “my ocean.” And ownership had its rewards. I could use the ocean without charge whenever I wanted. Most importantly, the ocean would never hurt its owner. I never gave a second thought to sharks, jellyfish, crabs, stomach cramps, undertows or drowning. The water would always be safe.

Owning the ocean never burdened me with any responsibilities. It pretty much took care of cleaning itself. What the ocean couldn't do, the sea gulls seemed to do for it. These intriguing birds helped clean the beach and added sounds that completed the language of the seashore. But while I owned the ocean, I didn't understand its language.

Everything changed in the summer of my ninth year. While swimming in the ocean with a friend and his older sister, something completely unexpected occurred. I don't know if I stepped in a hole or got knocked down by a wave or underestimated the undertow, but I went under and could not get back to the surface. Almost immediately I knew I was in trouble. I wasn't a very good swimmer … probably because I didn't believe I would ever need to be. At one point I looked up and saw the sun beaming into the water. At that instant it occurred to me that I was going to die. The ocean was going to kill me and all I could think was, “It doesn't care! It doesn't care!”

I had reached the point where the pain begins to stop and resignation takes over. I felt certain that no one had seen me go under, so I had little hope. As I began to black out, however, I felt a hand on my arm. What seemed like the hand of God belonged to my friend's teenage sister. She pulled me back into the shallow water and to the surface. She never said a word to me and I'm not even sure if I ever thanked her. I struggled back toward the beach spitting out salt water and leaving a different ocean than the one I had entered.

For a while after that I didn't know how to approach the ocean. I felt betrayed, that somehow I had been lured into a dangerous trap. So I decided that, for the time being, I would stay out of the water.

Most confusing was that from the beach the ocean looked the same as before. The waves rolled toward the shore and the gulls circled above. But now the water was dangerous. There were sharks and sea monsters everywhere. The undertow was cruel and merciless. Still in all, from the beach the scene looked as it always had.

Certain experiences refuse to be forgotten. They seem to stay right in front of you until you make sense of them. It's like living on an island and being afraid of water. You have to somehow make things right.

Eventually I found my way back into the ocean. For the next few summers, though, I was too guarded to enjoy it. I stepped cautiously and never ventured far from shore. While I protected myself I watched with envy all the other swimmers reveling in the tide. I couldn't decide if I knew something they didn't or if they knew something of which I was unaware.

Sometime during adolescence the pieces of the puzzle began to fit. A Zen expression states: “When the mind is ready, a teacher appears.” The teacher, it seems, need not be human. As I sat on the bulkhead one early August evening listening to the sounds of the surf and the sea gulls, a message came to me. Though I heard no voices in the literal sense, I felt the ocean making a simple statement: “Respect me!”

Suddenly things started making sense. There was danger in the water. But there was also vitality, beauty and exhilaration. I couldn't own the ocean, but I could befriend it. I learned to swim better. I began to respect the undertow. I then gradually became more spontaneous in the water, all the while appreciating its power, mystery and grandeur.

My arrogance led to trauma which resulted in fear. When my fear turned to respect I found contentment. I miss the ocean much as one would miss an old and faithful friend.

Fairy Tales

I sometimes think children know more about courage than anyone. They flock to heroes who fight evil and save the day. In fact, fairy tales may be among our most sophisticated methods of teaching courage. “Jack in the Beanstalk,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Hansel and Gretel” all teach children that no matter how bad things get, the situation can be changed. Although every parent tells these stories in a unique manner, the theme remains pretty consistent: Where there is courage, there comes magic. The courageous soul arrives at happy endings.


Renowned psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has demonstrated the importance of fairy tales in child development. He believes there exists a message inherent in these stories.

This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence - but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.

Through the fairy tale, the original displeasure of anxiety turns into the great pleasure of anxiety successfully faced and mastered. Thus children learn a simple, yet extremely important fact of life. When we encounter various monsters, dragons, evil giants, witches and wicked trolls in our life, our journey does not have to end.

As we age, we learn that these monsters take many forms. We can encounter rejection, despair, illness, injury, the threat of death, humiliation and many other kinds of pain. And unlike fairy tales, once we get beyond the first dragon, there may be many others. In real life, the journey never ends.

Also, as we grow older and wiser, we come to know that we need not always kill the troll. Sometimes retreating makes more sense. But perhaps the most difficult lesson of all is the understanding that maybe the troll has a right to be there. Maybe he is not, in fact, an obstacle in our path but, rather, a very important pan of our journey. How we handle each monster may determine the nature and condition of our next stretch of the road.

Courage doesn't always involve moving mountains

Courage doesn't make things easier. It makes things possible! Courage does not imply an absence of fear. Instead it insists that we do what we believe is right in spite of our fear. Courage does not remove fear as much as it helps us act in the face of anxiety. In this sense, courage and cowardice have the same underlying feeling: Fear! Still, a dear difference exists. A coward's first priority is to remove the fear. A courageous soul's first priority, on the other hand, is to do what is right.

This drive to do what is right makes courage the motor that pushes all our values into action. Courage is not a virtue or value among other personal values like love and fidelity. It is the foundation that underlies and gives reality to all other virtues and personal values. Without courage our love pales into mere dependency. Without courage our fidelity becomes conformism. It also seems difficult to conceive of honesty existing without courage.

In the world of values there are probably no teachers, only pupils. While trying to decide right from wrong we often face uncertainty along with the realization that others cannot decide for us. What I believe is right is not necessarily the same as what I know for sure. If we had the luxury of certainty, we wouldn't need courage. We can be half sure and, at the same time, whole hearted. If we wait until we are absolutely sure about something before we act on it, we would be virtually paralyzed. Courage means acting on what we believe is right in spite of the uncertainty. Refusing to act on what we feel and think is right is what Confucius called “the worst cowardice.”

Courage puts intention into action. But unlike fairy tales, the courageous act does not always lead to success. Heroes die in battle. Martyrs perish for their convictions. For example, the bravery of several prominent American politicians. While these men demonstrated valor under intense pressure, their actions - for the most part - did not lead to happy endings. They took unpopular stands which, though admired by history, angered the voters of their day and (in many cases) ended their political careers.

Sometimes there are no apparent rewards for a courageous act. We can't always count on history to catch us in its lens and prove us correct. Sometimes an act that takes every ounce of our fortitude goes completely unnoticed or even brings ridicule. At these times our only reward comes from the knowledge that we have been true to ourselves and have acted in an honorable way. Whether or not this is, enough reinforcement to continue acting courageously is up to each of us.

Doing what is right without thought of reward represents perhaps the finest achievement of human nature. Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning. Courage puts our best intentions, even the risky and unpopular ones, into action. Then, even in the face of criticism, cynicism or skepticism, we can live with ourselves knowing we stayed true to our values.

Courage doesn't always involve moving mountains. Sometimes it just means putting one foot in front of the other.

Time to die?

Brandon felt it was time to die. Although he had given the idea serious consideration in the past, he had reached the point where he could not see his life surviving the night.

Brandon's father had been committed to a mental institution after years of drinking and violence that was eventually attributed to schizophrenia. Brandon's family lived with the shame that accompanied his father's bizarre and dangerous public behavior. At age fifteen when his father was finally confined, Brandon asked his mother if the family could change their name.

Brandon began using drugs in his early teens and continued to do so up till that fateful night. A good looking young man, he dated many girls and had done well in school. He seemed to have all the social skills necessary to fit in, but inside himself he felt out of control.

Like many children of mentally ill parents, Brandon feared his future. What may have been normal adolescent confusion was, Brandon believed, a taste of the insanity sure to lie ahead. Seeing nothing but torment in the offing, at age seventeen he looked for a way out.

Several years earlier, Brandon had acquired a .22 caliber handgun. Until this night, it had never been used. Hindsight suggests that it had always been intended for one thing. Now came its time to serve its purpose.

Alone in his room, Brandon reached for the pistol. He had gotten this far several times before. He entered new territory, however, when he raised the gun to his head. He paused for a moment, then pulled the trigger.

He didn't know where he would be after it was over, but he never figured held be back in his room. The gun had misfired. This young man who considered himself the most unlucky kid in the world had just survived a deadly suicide attempt.

Still not ready to give up on giving up, Brandon tried again. He checked the bullets and then shook the weapon. Convinced finally that the first miss was only a fluke, he once again pressed the barrel to his temple. Again he paused, and once more tripped the hammer.

Still no sound. Maybe, he frantically thought, there would be no way out. Desperately he changed the bullets and snapped the gun back together. Shaking the pistol as if to punish it, he then - for the final time – positioned it next to his head. No hesitation this time. He simply aimed and pulled the trigger.

It seems some lives are not for the taking. Three shots at point blank range, three misfires. Still not ready to look for alternatives Brandon shook the weapon violently between his face and his lap. Something had to happen. Something did. Without touching the trigger, the gun fired sending a bullet into Brandon's thigh. Stunned and bleeding, he crawled up the stairs to his mother's bedroom.

When they arrived at the hospital, Brandon denied a suicidal intent. Instead, he reported that he had been playing with the gun when it accidentally went off. Although the hospital staff had its doubts, they released him after a four-day stay. His mother, however, insisted he get counseling.

Brandon didn’t want to admit it at first but he needed someone who would listen. A scared kid who didn't know who or how to ask for help, he had just had his only solution taken from him.

“How do you explain the three misfires?” Brandon was asked.

“I have no idea,” he replied with obvious bewilderment on his face. “I never gave much thought to the God business but I can't think of any other way to explain it.” He now had a starry look about him.

The philosopher Nietzsche claimed that, “He who has found a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” While Brandon did not yet know the why to his life, he had become convinced that one existed. He now knew there was a reason the Grim Reaper refused to take him. Now he faced the difficult, yet tremendously healthy, task of finding the meaning of his life - a meaning he knew existed.

After that fateful night Brandon no longer considered suicide an option. It's important to understand, though, that this was the only thing that changed that night. All his other problems remained. The family troubles, for instance, were waiting for him when he left the hospital. But this one change had a drastic impact on Brandon. He now insisted upon facing what life had to offer. He stopped asking “if” he should live his life and began asking “how” he should live it.

Brandon gave up the drugs, graduated from high school and found a job he liked. With the determination to live came a courageousness that will, hopefully, live in him for the rest of his life. He will encounter other dragons and monsters as his journey continues. He will deal with each of them, in spite of his fear.

Perhaps the most important lesson about courage is that it exists, always. Courage is available to everyone, at any time in our lives. We can begin to develop it at any point. But if may not come cheap. It usually requires an effort, sometimes a very serious effort.

In order to become and then remain courageous, we need to do at least two things. We need to recognize courage and we need to practice courage.

Recognizing Courage

Courage is a strange type of fear. This emphasizes the fact that fear accompanies courage. Courage can be hard to recognize because even when we use it we still feel scared. On occasion the fear becomes so intense that we move into numbness. People who have performed acts of bravery such as rescuing someone from a burning building sometimes report that they didn't feel the fear until the feat was over. While they engaged in their heroics, heroes frequently say they were just too focused on their mission to feel much of anything.

You can be terrified and yet be very courageous. You can use your guts while your stomach twists in knots. Even when your emotions seem to shut down you can find your fortitude. But in order to develop your courage, you must recognize it.

People who believe they are cowards tend to avoid situations that require courage. As a result, they rarely practice their courage. Courage, for better or worse, is a muscle that atrophies without exercise. People who know they have access to courage do not avoid challenges. They risk, dare and explore, all in an effort to do what they believe is right.


People who recognize their courage know they are capable of courage. This in turn generates even greater amounts of valor. Great acts of bravery usually catch our attention. It's the everyday courage that gets neglected. For example, it takes courage to walk away from the gossip that so often accompanies office politics. Walking away from a backbiting crowd can cause them to turn their venom toward you. This takes nerve. No one likes being criticized; we would rather be pan of the group, the herd. Peer pressure can make us sheep. Rising above this pressure restores our humanity. Most of us, at some point, have the opportunity to know this triumph.

Caring for a baby, listening to the questions of an inquisitive four-year-old and introducing yourself to a stranger all require courage. So does asking for a raise, giving the toast at a wedding or eating that scary looking new dish your host prepared “just for you.” There are no insignificant acts of courage.

Someone said that the first step to learning French is to admit you don't know French. This being the case, you might think it would be easy getting started. But admitting we don't know something can be daring. It exposes us as less than all-knowing, which leaves us vulnerable to being criticized.

Scholars always have more questions. Every time we ask and explore we demonstrate our mettle. As Camelot deteriorated before his eyes, King Arthur returned to the forests of his youth to stir the memories of his mentor Merlin. In the midst of the woods he recalled this advice: “The best thing to do in times of despair is to learn something.” Learning new skills and information can lead to solutions. Equally important, learning can restore our faith in our own courage.

Curiosity, which prompts us to explore the unknown, prods us to practice courage. Delving into the unknown is never easy; it arouses in us our most primitive fears.

Whenever we need to be reminded of how courageous we really are, we should learn something new.

Like curiosity, generosity seems to owe a debt of gratitude to courage. Psychologists have identified hundreds of fears or “phobias” but no one, to my knowledge, has coined a term for the all too common fear of generosity. Sometimes, in fact, it seems this phobia has become an epidemic. Maybe people fear that what they give away they may need later. Or perhaps contributing to a cause reveals too much about the giver. In any case, it seems dear that many folks would like to be generous but can't find the gumption to get started.

I don't believe most selfish people want to be selfish. Instead, they simply lack the courage to live a generous life. For many, material things represent security; their loss or lack, the opposite. No one likes to feel insecure. Generosity takes courage. Every time you drop change into the March of Dimes canister you demonstrate your courage. Realize this! Your generosity demonstrates your courage.

Recognizing courage builds courage. Make a list of all the times that you can remember when you acted courageously. This may be difficult at first, but stay with it. Look for occasions when you were honest when honesty seemed threatening. Identify instances when remaining loyal to a friend cost you other social, political or business opportunities. Point out to yourself those situations where you followed your conscience even though you saw rewards for doing otherwise. If it helps, ask someone close to you for input on your list. We all need help at times in recognizing our courage.

If your list comes up short, don't give up. Everyone can develop courage. You start where you are right now. To build courage, you need to recognize courage. You also need to practice it.

Practicing Courage

Courage is there for everyone. Some folks have an easier time reaching for it because they reach for it more often. Like all other values, courage grows and becomes more accessible each time we use it.

If you want to develop a virtue, practice it. There are no effective shortcuts here. There is, however, an unfortunate misconception concerning the availability of instant bravery. A large portion of illicit drug users claim they take drugs because they feel drugs give them “guts.” While “high,” they can face and “deal with” things they believe they otherwise could not. At first glance, this might appear correct. A line of cocaine or a few shots of whiskey can help some people reveal their feelings, speak their minds and present themselves with more self-confidence. But the lie becomes obvious when you watch people try to recover from drug addiction.


Drugs don't provide courage - they mask fear. While using drugs, users don't have to face their fears. But in the process, their courage atrophies and they lose control. As the situation worsens, they feel incapable of tapping the force that keeps them true to themselves, true to the values that were once important to them. A kind of hopelessness sets in and their anxieties accumulate.

The downward spiral continues until their fears become so great that the drugs can no longer tame them. This place has a name: rock bottom. If ever a person needs courage, it's when they've hit rock bottom. But courage is something that they haven't tapped since their drug use began. As a result, many never leave rock bottom alive.

Fortunately, though, a number do manage to work their way back. But how? How does someone with virtually no courage left, begin to reconstruct an almost destroyed life? In short, in the beginning of their recovery, they must borrow the courage of others. Once they are on their feet, however, they must begin building their own courage. Building one's courage becomes a crucial element in ongoing recovery.

Drugs and alcohol don't provide fortitude. Just ask anyone who has ever been to rock bottom. You can't find “courage in a bottle” because this potion doesn't exist. We develop courage step by step and we can begin at any point in our lives.

Everyone has opportunities for practicing courage. Fear often points us towards these situations. Ask yourself, “When am I afraid to do what I believe is right?” Your answers will direct you to opportunities for courage and growth. He who wills adventure will experience it - according to the measure of his courage. Note that he who wills growth will experience it - according to the measure of his courage. Every time you use your courage, you grow.

We walk a little stronger each time we walk through a fear. Fear may mean “danger ahead” but danger ahead doesn't always mean “stop.” Sometimes, in order to be true to ourselves, we have to trespass through anxiety.

We all tap courage in our own ways. We choose our paths to the well. The more we use these paths, the greater our familiarity with them. The well is always full but it is not always easy to find. We mark our paths through repeated use. Without regular use, the grass returns and the paths disappear.

In order to find courage, we must enter into situations that call us to walk through our fears. With every courageous act we become more courageous.

Courage exists, always. We begin to tap it as we appreciate, recognize and practice it. Is it worth the effort? I believe so, but dearly this is a question you will have to answer for yourself.

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