Friends of ours recently visited the Center for Human and Civil Rights in Atlanta. When I met up with them afterwards it was clear that they had been deeply impacted by the various installations, exhibitions, and the overall state of the world during the 1960’s. During our conversation, one resounding statement stayed with me: “there are no acts of courage any more.” This comment made was from the space of relative peacefulness in their lives and circumstances. And thus the juxtaposition between their own reality and a concentrated focus on particular subject, time in history, and on specifically chosen individuals, was stark. Thankfully, my friends do live peacefully, a lasting benefit of the actions of brave men and women who fought for the level of freedom we enjoy today.
What does courage actually mean? By breaking the word in two we get to its root, cor & age. Cor is Latin for heart. Age, when applied as a suffix means, “that which belongs or is functionally related to.” (1) Joining the two would suggest the word courage means, an action that comes from the heart. However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines courage as “that quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear; bravery, valor.”
Where did heart go in the OED definition?
Courage, as an action from the heart (based on the root of the word) is very different from courage from the head. Semantics? Perhaps, but investigating the distance between head and heart for most folks involves one of the longest journey’s of our lifetimes. Has humanity, at large, lost its connection to our heart, and therefore our ability to act courageously, as my friend suggested?
Without argument, people who stand up against an authority, government, or regime in order to challenge the status quo and bring about equanimity for all citizens, have an enormous amount of courage. The dedication, suffering, presence of threats to themselves and their families lives, all in the face of slow moving gain, takes not only perseverance but is a calling of the heart. Individuals who stand in front of tanks like the unnamed man at Tiananmen Square, lines of armed police like Liesha Evans in Baton Rouge present at the first Black Lives Matter protest, or 15 year old Greta Thunberg standing in front of the United Nations calmly calling out the leaders of the world for their lack of urgency regarding actions pertaining to the state of the planet the younger generations will inhabit, are all showing immense courage. Courageous are also the people who instinctively place themselves in front of vehicles, shooters, or any other external threat to protect others. As are the people who run into burning buildings, dive into deep water, or underwater caves, or climb into collapsed mines to rescue or return our beloveds. All of these acts give me hope that human beings haven’t completely devolved to our less attractive qualities.
Do we measure courage by what we ourselves think we would or would not be able to do? Yes and no. The examples mentioned above are distinct precisely because they are the kinds of acts that make it into local, national, or international news. But what else does courage look and sound like? A quick internet search of quotes on courage reveal 4,267 opinions which leads me to think that everyone has a different or perhaps nuanced feeling of courage; some of which we will pretty much all agree on and some of which will create differences of opinion.
Courage asks of us to act even though we may face rejection, persecution, physical harm, or unknown consequences such as homelessness, incarceration, or death. And it is the knowing of these potential consequences that makes courage so hard (and so impressive).
Unlike the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, courage does not always mean the absence of fear, rather it means that the action in need of our courage is greater than our fear. Fear may or may not be present but it is sidelined for what is needed of us at the time. For example, the teenager coming out to their parents, being the first in your family to insist on going to university when education is not valued, getting up each day when you have lost a child, a lover, or a parent. Courage also asks of us not to ignore what is out of alignment, by speaking up: in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, or in our world at large.
I know of many less public but no less challenging versions of courage, and I am fairly sure you do to. Sometimes courage, is as simply difficult as speaking your Truth about feelings, or opinions contrary to those of others, or about ways of being and knowing that are counter to popular cultural norms. Or the quiet courage it takes to open our selves to the necessary vulnerability of risking loving and being loved by another. Building our courage muscle takes practice.
Personally, courage is facing someone, heart-to- heart and expressing a Truth (deliberate use of the capital T) when I do so, my heart expands. As my heart grows, with a sensation of filling with a warm liquid, it feels as if it extends outside of my body and forms an impenetrable shield. My heart creates a barrier, which is made from it and protects itself at the same time. Paradoxical, isn’t it? That which can so easily be wounded is in fact what creates our protection. When my heart steps forward, I am at a threshold; one I am tentative to cross but have no choice but to do so. It is as if my heart draws the rest of me forward, pulled by an invisible force. My body reacts the same, heart first, whether I step forward to sing in public or stand to confront the man who created a home environment built on daily multi-variant violence, fear, and insecurity.
Humanity and the planet are undergoing profound changes. Courage it seems comes in several different forms: Physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual. Each requires us to be courageous in multiple ways and each will need courageous individuals to step forward to bring about change, one act at a time.
What does courage mean to you?
Write down all the times you remember being courageous in your life, the big and the small. Those times your heart called you forth to act. Are there differences between the times you acted courageously from instinct versus the times you acted from a courageous heart? What is the most courageous thing you consider yourself to have done? Sit with your list and notice where in your body you can feel energy¾arms, legs, and heart? Just notice and allow yourself to feel where and how your body holds the energy of courage.
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