Courage is one of those virtues necessary to living a good life. But what is courage? Usually, the first thing that comes to mind is bravery in the face of a threat, yet it is so much more. Let me suggest that it is the ability to choose the point that lies between cowardice and recklessness in any circumstance.
Courage takes many forms. Examples include the courage to do what is right, the courage of facing a personal fear, the courage to accept unpopularity, the courage to endure physical or mental pain for the sake of self-improvement, the courage to push forward through frustration, the courage to tell the truth, the courage to change, the courage to act, the courage to trust, the courage to love, the courage to commit, and many more.
In Aristotle for Everybody, Mortimer Adler interprets Aristotle’s definition of courage as “an habitual disposition to take whatever pains may be involved in doing what we ought to do for the sake of a good life.” Quite simply, it means doing what we know we need to do however challenging or difficult. For example, most of us inherently know we need to exercise to live a healthy life, yet many of us choose not to exercise at least regularly for some reason we have come to rationalize as valid. This is a lack of courage in Aristotle’s view.
How do you make a habit of courage? This is not an easy undertaking, as you will have to overcome years of habits associated with making uncourageous decisions. First, let me suggest that you have to believe that practicing courage is a worthy pursuit. Developing courage will allow you to be more in control of your life as opposed to letting outside circumstances dictate your actions.
Second, start on a small scale. It will be self-evident when you are faced with a decision that requires courage. Before making a decision recognize the scope of courage that will be required. If you are contemplating taking some type of risk, courage may require that you research the issue before acting recklessly. For example, using health again as it is a universal challenge. Study the benefits and techniques of living a healthy lifestyle and then slowly implement what you have learned. There will be days when you do not feel like exercising or eating a healthy meal and this is where you begin to develop courage. As Nike says, “Just do it!” Another example would be making a financial investment. This will require courage and demands investigation to determine the proper amount of courage to make the best choice.
Another place to start is by developing the habit of being truthful. Telling the truth often requires courage because it may get you or someone you care about into trouble. Yet we inherently know it is the right thing to do. There is a selfish benefit to this strategy and that is people will respect you for this virtue. They may not always like it but they will respect it. They will come to know that you are always telling them the truth and they will appreciate you for that quality.
As you continue to develop courage you will eventually face the most difficult of situations when you will have to make unpopular decisions for the greater good or a higher cause. In order to prepare for such decisions I urge you to read Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. The issues contained within this book may have been of a past era but the principles remain timeless.
In his forward to the Memorial issue of Profiles in Courage, Robert Kennedy reminds us that President Kennedy was fond of Dante “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
It is impossible to live a virtuous life without courage. Courage is not obtained from a single action but nurtured through a habit of courageous decisions over a lifetime. Practicing courage is a worthy pursuit and necessary to living a meaningful and fulfilling life and contributing to your community.