What is courage?

what is courageWhenever I hear the word “courage,” what comes to mind is an orange, sticky-looking substance in a metal tin—orange sherbert. For years, I thought this is what The Wizard of Oz gave to the Cowardly Lion to fix his cowardice.

After a little snooping around in the Google Images vault, I discovered that he really gave the Lion a gold Patonce cross with the word “COURAGE” on a blue banner. The details of this transaction must have been fuzzy because I have spent the last twenty years trying to forget those flying monkeys with blue skin and gray sideburns that stuffed Toto into a picnic basket.

The only more terrifying cinematic style choice that I can remember is Nicholas Cage’s hair in Con Air.

After a drunken idiot at a bar insults his wife and picks a fight, Cage’s character, a decorated U.S. Army Ranger named Cameron Poe, accidentally kills the man and spends seven years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. On the day of his release, Poe has to share a transport plane with some of the country’s most dangerous criminals. After they kill the guards and hijack the plane, he stays on board to stop them.

Believe it or not, Dorothy and Cameron Poe share a common trait.

Bravery. They both show a lot of guts.

If you stopped and thought about it, you’d probably realize that most of your favorite movies—and the best moments in movies like Con Air—involve people showing courage, despite the odds, despite the danger, despite their own fears and inadequacies.

We love stories about unlikely heroes—Sam and Frodo journeying to destroy the Ring of Power; stories about making a stand against evil—Harry Potter fighting Voldemort; stories about people sacrificing themselves for others—Saving Private Ryan; stories about people who refuse to give up their dignity and humanity—Life is Beautiful; stories about ordinary people opposing injustice—Schindler’s List.

These are all forms of courage. We’re willing to forgive flimsy plots, stiff acting, and over-the-top fight choreography, a la Jason Statham, for a few moments of courage and heroism.

But what does courage look like in everyday life? It changes with the person. We all have our own fears and insecurities. I like what August Wilson has to say about the hard work of honest analysis:

“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength.”

Try this exercise: Sit down and don’t move until you’ve written down ten. Pick one and press into it. Let your mind walk down the dark alley of the worst case scenario. You ask that girl out, and she says no. It won’t kill you. You break up with your boyfriend, and you spend the rest of your life single. Can you handle that outcome? Probably.

Move to a new city. Quit your job. Sing on a stage in front of people. Tell your friends that you love them. Forgive your parents. Write letters asking for forgiveness. Throw away pictures. Buy a motorcycle. Get your hair chopped off. Get a tattoo. Take guitar lessons. Stand up to your boss.

Courage is committing to one small, decisive action. What person do you not want to call? What conversation makes you sick at your stomach just thinking about it? Dial the number.

Buy that trendy hat and wear it.

Try out for a play at the community theater.

Dance.

Courage is having the guts to try and fail—or try and succeed. Courage is asking for help. Courage is the Spirit coming alive within us. Courage is fighting despair and clinging to hope.

For me this week, courage was starting and finishing the first chapter of my first novel even though the cartoon red devil on my shoulder was telling me that every word was garbage. Steven Pressfield calls the cartoon devil “the Resistance.”

I felt like I was doing an injustice to my idea. I’ve never written a novel before. I’ve never even published a short story. I felt like I was wasting my time. I felt like I should be working on projects that actually make me money. What if I don’t finish the novel? What if I do finish it and it’s bad? What if no one ever reads it? What if people do read it and pan it?

I kept writing. I have a protagonist and several open loops. I punched the Resistance in the throat, and I have fifteen pages of orange, oily courage to show for my the last five days. I ate the orange sherbert, and in doing so, I became an unlikely hero.

There’s a difference between trying and training. Listen to Mary Anne Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”

What’s your next move? Commit. Take a bit of sherbert. Share your one, small, decisive action in the Comments section if that helps.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted June 4, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Austin: a well written and thoughtful assessment of courage – it is the ability to move forward, even when there’s no sense that the way forward is clear.

    Thank you for this.

    Colin and Jasmine

  2. Posted June 7, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your kinds words, Colin and Jasmine. I’m glad my words resonated with you. When the way forward is unclear, committing to a course of action and risking an undesirable outcome certainly takes more courage than doing nothing at all.