Maggie: I need to talk about something that makes me feel guilty.
John: Sure. Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you.
Maggie: Two of my friends said horrible things about another girl at our school. This girl’s family doesn’t have a lot of money so she wears the same clothes almost every day. I was standing near them and I heard what they were saying. It made me mad, but I didn’t do anything. I just stood there listening. I don’t know why I didn’t say something. I feel like such a coward.
John: I am glad you got angry when you heard your friends talking poorly about another girl. It tells me that your heart is in the right place. But I don’t think your analysis about courage and cowardliness is correct.
Maggie: What do you mean?
John: Courage is a highly misunderstood virtue, especially in the western world. Your statement that you felt like a coward is an example of this misunderstanding.
Maggie: You are going to explain that, right?
John: I am going to try. We need to remember that courage is a virtue. Even so, we often confuse it with other things like emotions, just like you did. Let me ask you this: what do you think you should have done in this situation?
Maggie: I should have confronted my friends about what they were saying?
John: Okay. And what do you think you would have accomplished by confronting them? Do you think they would have changed their behavior as a result?
Maggie: Um… Now that I think about it, I don’t think confronting them would have changed anything. They probably would have just gotten mad at me.
John: That sounds right to me. Confronting them while you were angry would not have helped the situation. It would have just made them defensive and angry in return.
This is a perfect example of confusing courage with an emotion. If you had confronted your friends, someone observing the situation might have thought you were brave. But, in fact, you would have been responding out of anger, without critical thought about whether your response would be beneficial or harmful, and that is not courageous. Angry responses may look brave at times, but they rarely lead to good results. The same is true when we act as a result of jealousy, grief, or other emotions. Emotions are part of living and well-trained emotions make life more meaningful. But we need to control our emotions, and take time to think matters through before we act. We shouldn’t confuse emotional responses with courage.
Does this make sense to you?
Maggie: Yes, I think so. We see people respond to things out of anger or frustration all the time, and that is not courage. What other types of things do we confuse with courage?
John: Ignorance is often confused with courage. This happens a lot with young people who do things that look brave, but are actually done simply because the person is unaware of the risks. I have seen teens car-surfing, swimming in rip tides, driving 120 mph, and walking along the edges of tall buildings. Taking uncalculated risks is not brave.
Similarly, fear is often confused with courage, which is ironic when you think about it. Some people act courageously because they are worried about what others will think of them. Their fear of shame or dishonor motivates them, not the virtue itself.
Maggie: What about people who do things like climb mountains, are they courageous?
John: Many of them are, yes. But you have hit on another category of actions that gets confused with courage: expertise and experience. Once a person gets really good at something, it ceases to take courage to do that action. Think about it this way. When a person first starts climbing, it may take a lot of courage just to climb ten feet off the ground. But once a person has mastered climbing, it takes very little courage for her to climb the Grand Teton. Her training and experience take over, replacing the need for courage. The same is true for most other actions and activities, so we shouldn’t confuse expertise with courage.
Maggie: Is this true for people in the military also?
John: Yes, I think so. I imagine that the first time a soldier engages in a battle, whether a real battle or in training, it requires lots of courage to stand and fight. But after a while, when she is well-trained and experienced, it requires less courage. She then fights methodically and rhythmically, based on her training, skill, and experience. That is not to say that she is less brave generally. It simply means that less courage is required due to her experience and expertise. But I am sure that there are times when even the most experienced soldier has to reach down and pluck up her courage, or at least I imagine that is the case.
Maggie: So you have told me what courage is not, but what is it? I know it is a virtue, so it’s a habit that we can develop. But can you explain more about it?
John: Courage is an interesting virtue because it has two parts: an emotional part and an intellectual part. The emotional part is about feelings of confidence and fear, and training yourself to stand firm in the face of fear. The intellectual part is about making sound judgments about when to act and when to stand firm, how to act, and when to remove yourself from a situation. In other words, a brave person has confidence in herself, controls her fears, but also makes good judgments about when and how to act in response to a situation that raises those fears.
Courage is also a mean between rashness (the excess) and cowardliness (the deficiency). Rash people act without thinking about their actions and the consequences of their actions. This is similar to the angry people we discussed above. Cowardly people rarely act when they should because they fear the consequences of their actions.
Maggie: So a courageous person probably would not have confronted my friends?
John: Probably not. She would have understood that, at best, such a confrontation would have accomplished nothing. Her friends would not have listened to her, especially while she was angry. At worst, it would have made them defensive, angry, and more entrenched in their position.
Maggie: What should I do now?
John: Off the top of my head, I can think of two things. First, you can be a friend to this girl they were talking about.
Maggie: I am, that is why I was so angry. She is so nice and they were saying such horrible things.
John: You are a good person. I am so glad you are in my life.
Maggie: Embarrassing! Just tell me about the second thing?
John: Second, you can wait until you are no longer upset, then go and tell your friends that their discussion made you uncomfortable. That would be courageous, both emotionally and intellectually. You should also try and introduce the girls. Perhaps if all goes well, you can all become friends.
Maggie: That would make me nervous. I guess it will take courage, like you said.
John: It will take courage. For some people, discussing things like this with others would take a lot of courage. Others, not so much.
Which brings me to my last point. We never know where people are at in their development of courage as a virtue, so we shouldn’t judge them. For example, it may take more courage for an introvert to attend a class party than for an extrovert to give a speech to your entire school. It may take more courage for a friend who has suffered from physical abuse to stand up to a bully than for a soldier to enter a battle. We just never know about people, so let’s not judge.
Maggie: I really like that. We shouldn’t be so judgmental and we should try to be more understanding of each other. Thanks.