On Courage

No virtue is more misunderstood than courage. Two errors seem particularly egregious to me — the triumph of the individual and the myth of conquering fear.

By triumph of the individual, I mean the way we discount the cultural structures that allow success in the face of adversity. I bought a house recently. It is, on the surface, a truly individual triumph. But my life up to this point has been a product of discourses, of culturally constructed knowledge, of bosses and mentors and clients who shaped my career to make such a dream possible. The psychologist Max Seligman calls this phenomenon the “waxing of the individual and the waning of the commons.” In general, courage is built on the fortitude and fortune of generations past. You and I don’t give enough credit to the history of those who came before us or the sheer dumb luck that led us to be here.

In other words, courage is a group effort. And often, we who need courage can create an environment where it thrives. To do this, we seek out the wisdom of those who came before us — the people and places in our lives that inspire collective, social courage. There were six Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, not just one. In your journey, collect the precious people who will form an iron backbone for you when you alone cannot muster the strength.

The myth of conquering fear is pervasive. After all, isn’t that what courage means? Hardly. Courage is not the annihilation of fear. It’s the far more rare ability to make friends with it.

There’s no question, fear is dangerous. “Fear is the mind-killer,” says the Bene Gesserit hymn in Dune. Steven Pressfield warns us that “fear saps passion,” and Eric Torenberg warns us that “hate comes from fear and ignorance.”

But we’ve all gone to war with fear. After your last battle, did it go away? Or did it merely change shapes and reappear at another inopportune time? Clearly, it’s the latter. So what then should we do?

Take heed of the way Buddha approached the demon, Mara. As Mara appeared to tempt the Buddha, the Buddha smiled and offered Mara a cup of tea. He prepared a comfortable cushion for Mara to sit on. Buddha offered understanding, compassion, and perhaps even friendship to the demon. And in doing so, he achieved a pathway towards something that eludes almost all of us. He found a way forward.

Begin to recognize your anxieties and fears. Mine are relatively straightforward — I fear being alone. I fear rejection. I worry that I’m not good enough.

Every client I’ve worked with, every employee I’ve managed, every boss I’ve ever had has felt similar fears. And as we all gather together to get through this thing we call life, we should start to make friends with the ugly side of it too.

Real courage is a collective act. And once that setting is enabled, it takes real courage to hold a compassionate place in your heart for your deepest, loneliest fears.

Thank you for reading.If you want to hear more, you may be interested in our upcoming webinar on building sustainable nonprofits, something that takes no small measure of courage. Please click here to register, and I hope to see you there!