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Perspectives on courage

By - Jun 17, 2013 - Category Articles - Print Print - Version française
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If one quality had to be singled out as being primarily required to live an ethical life, it would without question be courage. This courage Aristotle considered to be “the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”

Indeed, so many good intentions get crushed by the fear to expose oneself or to break the bonds that tie us to others! So many ambitious programs are carefully reflected upon and put forward only to wane and erode away in the face of weariness! Because courage is essential every step of the way: to make the inaugural move that marks the beginning, to dominate the fear of exposing oneself, to spontaneously assert one’s freedom while remaining loyal to the initial impetus, and finally to survive the long solitary struggle against despondency.

Its enemies are everyday instances of renouncement and all the resources tapped into by dishonesty and flight. Let us save ourselves for greater stakes than those at play in this meeting where a colleague is being unfairly roughed up by our irascible and unfair boss—this little helping hand wouldn’t really change anything anyway… Or so little. There are much more serious things than that! And who could reasonably hold you accountable for not standing up against everything, for not constantly fighting? You have to be reasonable. You can’t be a universal vigilante; you can’t be and act everywhere all the time. And this is how, from reasonable to explicable renouncement—and without realising it—you’ve become “a stowaway on board of your absence of morality”[1].

There is a cost to all of this, but did you weigh that cost? Here you were, with intentions so grand, so pure, so little analysed… They lacked the act of bravery that would have showed to the world who you really were. And you imperceptibly eroded yourself in the insignificance of daily renouncement. Losing bits and pieces of self-esteem day after day, you somehow end up not recognising yourself anymore. “Life isn’t short but time is limited” Malak Jan Nemati said. But isn’t it already too late?

And yet, is it really that hard to live up to one’s intentions and to express, if not what is good, at least what is desirable, compassion truly felt, necessary solidarity, empathy truly experienced? Is it so often that we are confronted with the impossible? With killing danger?

It is striking how often our perception of risks is biased by immediate fear, by our lack of perspective in the face of an event. Fear is useful and necessary to our protection, but the passing of a first move calls for a second one. If one looks at courage, one must also look at prudence. What is the most appropriate way to engage what my ethics require? Beyond the show-off and swaggering type of courage, what ethics most often requires is measured, appropriate and efficient action.

Your colleague is being harassed? Avoid the conniving smile coupled with the encouraging understatement “you know him; deep inside he isn’t such bad guy; it won’t go any further”.

What ethics required, was it that difficult? A concerned look; non-connivance. And if the occasion arises, maybe a little word one on one after the event: “you were a little hard on George. Dangerously close to harassment… it could be misinterpreted…” You didn’t dare say anything in front of everyone—very dangerous. But was it necessary? Wasn’t it useful to just lay one stone by contributing to a realisation or shifting the perception of danger? Wasn’t it appropriate at that specific moment? It was certainly less risky than an inflammatory comment; but should you really blame yourself for being strategic and creative in order to stay true to yourself? And for the goal to be reached?

Because this is what the goal is here: for courage to become a reflex within us in the face of all the challenges that come our way so that we may grow. There is no secret. Learning courage comes through actions and starts with the smallest ones. There is no failing involved when practising it because courage, in itself, constitutes success, both for oneself and for others. From the outset, it makes you the subject and active agent of your own life, and because it is exemplary, your practice of courage then opens the way to the practice of everybody else.

You can feel it. Courage makes the world a different place.

[1] ^Cynthia Fleury – Discussion with Raphaël Enthoven in the TV programme “Philosophie” (ARTE).

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  1. Lily Jun 20, 2013 12:36 am 1

    I find this article quite enlightening. The more I think about it, the more I realise that I do need courage almost every second of every day and I start to see how often I decide to let go or give up the fight out of cowardice.

    I had an experience yesterday which I think illustrates this pretty well:
    A friend of mine called me in the afternoon. He explained to me that someone he knew had asked to stay on his couch that night, but he wanted to refuse because he really didn’t like this person and basically asked me what I thought was the best excuse to make up in order to refuse. I tried for a second to convince him that he should just say yes rather than make up an excuse (it was only for one night, maybe he’d realise this person wasn’t that bad, this person was probably desperate if he decided to ask him, etc.) and in response he gave me all the reasons why he didn’t like this person… Deep inside I felt that I should have tried harder to convince him, there were more arguments to be made; but I didn’t. I gave up very quickly because I was “scared” he would get annoyed at me, I didn’t want to get into an argument—I simply didn’t feel like making that extra effort. And worse, I actually ended up helping him find a great fake excuse…
    The first thought that came to my mind after I hung up was “well, I tried.” But upon further reflection it became clear to me that I hadn’t tried hard enough. In this particular situation, considering the relationship I have with this friend, the “risks” involved in giving just a few more arguments to defend what I thought was the best thing to do from an ethical point of view, I should have tried harder. But I lacked the courage—the courage to confront a friend, the courage to stand up for what I thought was right…

    What I did was to make just enough efforts to put my conscience at ease, and I could have easily forgotten about it all had I not reflected upon it after the fact. I see this realisation as a first step and a necessary one. Now I’d better stay awake and start working very seriously on building up that courage, and as the author rightly points out, there’s no time to waste, so I’d better get on it fast!

    Any suggestions on how to go about it in practice are most welcome.

  2. Linda Jun 20, 2013 3:40 pm 2

    Fear is a choice.

  3. Shahla Jun 22, 2013 5:29 am 3

    The root of the problem is ego.

  4. juneone Jun 23, 2013 9:17 pm 4

    I realize how little courage i have because, even just reading this article, there is a part of me that is shaking in fear. Not only do I lack courage, but I am also very selective about when i put on the pretense of it. I only do that when I am protecting my own interests. Defend a co-worker? If I am honest, I know I never do that…i just sit quietly, and maybe gossip with others about how unjust it is, that’s about it. I find it difficult to find the courage to stand up for myself, so it makes it more difficult to do this for others.

  5. A. Jun 23, 2013 11:31 pm 5

    I work in sales and one of my experiences relating to courage has to do with one of my customers who is the key decision maker for my products in one of my largest (customer) sites. Now, this person is always very unpleasant towards me. During our meetings she can go from being very pleasant, to being unpleasant, and to being pleasant again, and that for no apparent reason. This has been going on for quite some time and though she admits not being an easy person to deal with, she makes no effort to control herself with me (whereas she can perfectly do so with her manager) and I keep turning a blind eye to her mood swings to avoid conflict.

    A colleague of mine has recently pointed out that my customer behaved that way because I was too kind with her. I thought about it for a while and came to the conclusion that my cowardly behavior was giving rise to a form of despise from my customer, which led to her unpleasant attitude.

    So I decided that I had to be brave and face her firmly and tell her that I was no longer going to accept her behavior.

    Interestingly enough I was about to go pay this customer a visit, preparing myself to be tested on courage and seeing that meeting as a spiritual trial (on courage), when someone with a lot of common sense told me that this was not a scenario to test my courage because this was an important customer and the relationship was completely asymmetric since she held the whip hand, and that I had better find a colleague who could replace me at the customer’s site to prevent the company from losing a lot of money.

    I thought I would share this just to show how our interpretation of reality and our decision on the best course of action should not only result from adopting a spiritual perspective but also from common sense.

  6. NAGHME Jun 24, 2013 12:27 am 6

    @Lily: In a world that pressures for conformity it takes courage to be who you are. So express yourself fully and authentically in every relationship and in every encounter you have with others giving up pretending to be more or less or different from who you truly are. When you fail to be authentic you keep from others that which makes you most attractive; when you conform all that you have to offer others is your conformity. Be genuine, humble and, unpretentious but most of all, just be yourself. There is nothing more valuable or attractive.

    On the other hand sometimes we need ( in my Iranian culture ) The Courage to Say No!! finding the guts to say no first requires being clear about what we most want to say yes to. Doing so will help us set boundaries in the midst of being pulled simultaneously in conflicting directions and teach people what we will and will not tolerate. Saying no when we need to may never be easy but the price we pay for not doing so far exceeds any momentary discomfort.

  7. kbld Jun 28, 2013 4:30 pm 7

    A few days ago, I saw a friend of mine that I had not seen for a few months, at a restaurant. It was the first time he came with his current girlfriend with whom he had been since the beginning of the academic year. I was with my wife. We spoke about our relationships and his girlfriend told us that they were going to conclude a civil partnership (in France) in order to get a premium from her work. They didn’t ask for our opinion at all, they just told us they were about to do it.
    Later during dinner, my friend told us that one time he went to buy a suit with his parents, and a while after, the cashier phoned them very concerned saying that she had made a mistake of 100 €. He told his parents that it was her mistake; they didn’t have to get back to her. They answered that he was harsh, and moreover that the money would be withdrawn from her salary. He had the reflex to say that that would be illegal (he practices Labour law), but in practice they do it anyway. This time I told him that first of all, legally he was wrong (all four of us were jurists) – he admitted that they had agreed on the price, so the material mistake did not change anything to the legal debt – and second, I dared say that it was common sense. Of course, I said all of that kindly and on a jovial tone.

  8. Lily Jun 28, 2013 10:14 pm 8

    Thanks for your encouraging words NAGHME!

  9. k Jul 08, 2013 4:34 pm 9

    @ comment 7:
    What is it that your friend did wrong?! Is it unethical? Isn’t it just a wise thing to do? Except for not paying the cashier back, I don’t think your friend has done anything wrong in your story (if I understand the story correctly). They are together and might even stay together, so why not get the monetary benefit? I guess the whole idea behind this possibility with a premium is to encourage and give people incentive to find a permanent partner.
    I don’t even understand where you got the idea that what they are doing is not good. Is it because they don’t LOVE each other enough?! If I knew a girl and our relationship called for it (i.e. more that almost only “physical needs”, and a rational future) I would also like a premium. I don’t even care what other people do, I just think it is a good thing.
    And what is the relationship of your comment with courage?

  10. Bm Aug 30, 2013 9:35 pm 10

    @lily: it’s great to see the concern for helping others and doing a good deed, however I think you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself that your effort to push your friend into doing a good deed was not courageous enough. I believe in this particular case you can imagine what you would do in place of your friend and imagine sacrificing your own comfort for the comfort of someone who needs a place to stay, but you can’t force someone else who may not feel comfortable or for whatever reason into a good deed. Sometimes if you become pushy toward someone else to do any positive act for their own sake or that of others, it can backfire and the person may become resentful even though you had good intentions.
    The important thing here is to have courage with regards to actions that relate to ourselves rather than encouraging others to share this courage.

  11. yocto Sep 03, 2013 1:14 am 11

    All of those boxing gloves in the picture combined, will not scare off this darn imperious self and negligence of mine. I’d like to comment on the article where it says “What ethics required, was it that difficult?” by saying YES it is difficult.

    It was a beautiful sunny day. I was walking down the stairs outside our office building with my co-worker and we were obliviously chatting and walking to get something to eat. I still feel the warmth of the sun and the subtle breeze on my skin when my co-worker asked “do you mind if we stop at the post office so I can mail this package to a friend” and explained it was as a thank you gift for a favor that friend did for her to attend a conference because our boss didn’t allow her to go with the company’s money. I was about to say of course I don’t mind (of course I did mind because I didn’t want to wait in line, you know, waiting in those lines is NOT fun!) when she said “never mind, I paid for my hotel in that trip so I am entitled to use office FedEx to mail it, don’t you think so?” I was quiet. I was digesting her words and putting my thoughts in order. Seconds went by. I knew I should say something. A few more steps and I still hadn’t said anything… she was checking her phone. I was thinking back to the time when I used to use the office printer for my personal work. I was thinking “who am I to preach to her?” A few seconds later, I finally asked “how much did you pay for the hotel?!!” Of all the things I could have said…lol! As if I wanted to compare what she had paid to the cost of the FedEx! So silly of me! What was I thinking?! Anyway, the subject changed and I lost the momentum and I couldn’t get it back.

    So yes it catches you off guard, it is a matter of seconds, I had to be quick, I had to be strategic, I had to be fair, I had to be non-judgmental, maybe give her a nudge “come on lets go… I need to buy some stamps too” but those words came to me long after. Now I understand the meaning of Malak Jan Nemati’s quote “… time is limited.”

  12. Lily Sep 04, 2013 1:25 am 12

    Thanks Bm. I fully agree that it is not necessarily a good thing to try to push others to do what we think they should do, and that it’s often counter productive to be too pushy or try to force anyone into performing good deeds. But I think the question of how to behave when you witness someone acting in a way that is clearly unethical, or when someone tells you about things they have done or are planning on doing that are unethical, is a very subtle one. It’s a matter of standing up for what is right, of defending the rights of others and your own rights, but in a balanced and considerate way. It depends on the situation, on your relationship to the various people involved, on the importance of what is at stake, etc. The example given in the article (the colleague being harassed by the boss) illustrates that quite well.

    In the example I gave, I still think that because of the nature of my relationship with this friend and the countless discussions we’ve had about ethics and how to treat people, as well as my natural inclination to avoid any and every kind of confrontation, I should have tried a bit harder. That said, my point wasn’t really to present this as a serious case of cowardice on my behalf (I actually don’t think it was that bad), but rather to point out how the need for courage is omnipresent when you try to live your life in accordance to certain ethical principles and that situations that don’t seem to be “that serious” shouldn’t be disregarded. Because if I don’t practice being courageous in situations where the stakes aren’t very high, what are the chances that I will be courageous when the stakes actually are high? I don’t really want to find out.

    I still haven’t figured out a good practice plan to improve my courage though (I have been thinking about it since this article was published and I have tried to make efforts in that sense, but nothing methodical or structured). If anyone has, please share!

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