What Is Courage?
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.
– Ambrose Redmoon
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.
– Mark Twain
Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.
– John Wayne
I like the definitions of courage above, which all suggest that courage is the ability to get yourself to take action in spite of fear. The word courage derives from the Latin cor, which means “heart.” But true courage is more a matter of intellect than of feeling. It requires using the uniquely human part of your brain (the neocortex) to wrest control away from the emotional limbic brain you share in common with other mammals. Your limbic brain signals danger, but your neocortex reasons that the danger isn’t real, so you simply feel the fear and take action anyway. The more you learn to act in spite of fear, the more human you become. The more you follow the fear, the more you live like a lower mammal. So the question, “Are you a man or a mouse?” is consistent with human neurology.
Courageous people are still afraid, but they don’t let the fear paralyze them. People who lack courage will give into fear more often than not, which actually has the long-term effect of strengthening the fear. When you avoid facing a fear and then feel relieved that you escaped it, this acts as a psychological reward that reinforces the mouse-like avoidance behavior, making you even more likely to avoid facing the fear in the future. So the more you avoid asking someone out on a date, the more paralyzed you’ll feel about taking such actions in the future. You are literally conditioning yourself to become more timid and mouse-like.
Such avoidance behavior causes stagnation in the long run. As you get older, you reinforce your fear reactions to the point where it’s hard to even imagine yourself standing up to your fears. You begin taking your fears for granted; they become real to you. You cocoon yourself into a life that insulates you from all these fears: a stable but unhappy marriage, a job that doesn’t require you to take risks, an income that keeps you comfortable. Then you rationalize your behavior: You have a family to support and can’t take risks, you’re too old to shift careers, you can’t lose weight because you have “fat” genes. Five years… ten years… twenty years pass, and you realize that your life hasn’t changed all that much. You’ve settled down. All that’s really left now is to live out the remainder of your years as contently as possible and then settle yourself into the ground, where you’ll finally achieve total safety and security.
But there’s something else going on behind the scenes, isn’t there? That tiny voice in the back of your mind recalls that this isn’t the kind of life you wanted to live. It wants more, much more. It wants you to become far wealthier, to have an outstanding relationship, to get your body in peak physical condition, to learn new skills, to travel the world, to have lots of wonderful friends, to help people in need, to make a meaningful difference. That voice tells you that settling into a job where you sell widgets the rest of your life just won’t cut it. That voice frowns at you when you catch a glance of your oversized belly in the mirror or get winded going up a flight of stairs. It beams disappointment when it sees what’s become of your family. It tells you that the reason you have trouble motivating yourself is that you aren’t doing what you really ought to be doing with your life… because you’re afraid. And if you refuse to listen, it will always be there, nagging you about your mediocre results until you die, full of regrets for what might have been.
So how do you respond to this ornery voice that won’t shut up? What do you do when confronted by that gut feeling that something just isn’t right in your life? What’s your favorite way to silence it? Maybe drown it out by watching TV, listening to the radio, working long hours at an unfulfilling job, or consuming alcohol and caffeine and sugar.
But whenever you do this, you lower your level of consciousness. You sink closer towards an instinctive animal and move away from becoming a fully conscious human being. You react to life instead of proactively going after your goals. You fall into a state of learned helplessness, where you begin to believe that your goals are no longer possible or practical for you. You become more and more like a mouse, even trying to convince yourself that life as a mouse might not be so bad after all, since everyone around you seems to be OK with it. You surround yourself with your fellow mice, and on the rare occasions that you encounter a fully conscious human being, it scares the hell out of you to remember how much of your own courage has been lost.