When we watch those who fight the leaping flames to rescue people or while discussing the bravery of the country's soldiers or when newspapers mention the police nabbing dreaded criminals, we don't say "It's their job, anyway." We applaud their valour for risking their own safety to do what is right. Courage is what Rani of Jhansi, Babasaheb Ambedkar, and Nelson Mandela demonstrated.
But courage is also Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay; it is the first few women who fought against gender bias; it is Mukhtar Mai who talked about her rape; it is the first same-sex couple which asked the world to mind its own business; it is also the first fish which swam against the tide. Courage is Helen Keller and it is Christopher Reeve.
Courage is YOU
Courage is in every mind which finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles against them. Courage doesn't have to involve larger-than-life people. It is there in each one of us, it just has to be tested. Those lucky get through life without having the opportunity to test it; but those who do, can emerge only better and stronger. Courage is you, when you rise again, phoenix-like, from the ashes of life, to heal and help heal.
An article in The Journal of Positive Psychology, written by Sean Hannah and his colleagues from the US Military Academy, suggests that levels of courage are influenced by individual character traits, particular states of mind and the values, beliefs and social forces acting on a person. They have also listed some more:
- One's inner convictions: These include independence, selflessness, integrity and honour. These beliefs can have important effects on behaviour in the face of fear.
- Social forces: Some might argue that these are the most important. People look at how others react to a situation, and then think how they should act in relation to other people.
- Inter-relationships: Positive emotions are likely to lead to less experienced fear. This also leads to more courageous behaviours on the part of people, which in turn leads to the subjective experience of courageousness. This will convert into positive emotional states.
Courage is not just fearlessness
Lack of fear might be a product of a deranged, immoral or unethical mind. Courage has a deeper moral dimension. It is the strength of the heart which shows when being faced with difficult choices. Aristotle has talked of moral courage where the danger is not to a person's physical wellbeing but to his or her social standing. Today it also includes lack of acceptance or ostracism from colleagues in an office, fighting sexual harassment or confronting someone over racist or community-focussed jokes.
Moral courage is tested too often in social or financial concerns. What motivates people who find themselves in these situations is their quest for justice or respect for human dignity.
A lot of things have been said about physical and moral courage. Physical bravery makes ordinary people larger than life, moral spine makes better human beings but it is psychological nerve which urges us to fight and overcome our shortcomings, irrational fears, destructive habits and mental illnesses which hold us in bondage. There are choices: Either you continue being what you are, get used to the social ostracism, mockery and humiliation by people and withdraw into a shell, escape miserably into substance abuse, or else take conscious action in the face of painful circumstances towards improving yourself. Then you realise that courage is no longer tied to better yourself for the sake of your public image. It is all about mending your own mind.
Martin Luther King was said to have fought depression constantly to maintain his campaign for civil rights. If he had succumbed to mood disorders, other forms of his courage would have been impossible. There is evidence that he spent sleepless night fighting his own demons and it was his work that pulled him out. The opportunities to act with both moral and psychological courage are many, and the fears calling for them are as different as people themselves.
Courage is not gender-biased
Courage was once a traditional male virtue, but civilisations, over centuries, have proved that it isn't so. For courage to be expressed, both men and women are equally well-equipped. Both sexes experience fear and are capable of assessing dangerous situations, correctly or wrongly. Both sexes are involved in roles which regularly need physical, moral as well as psychological nerve.
Today, inter-personal experience adds greater dimensions to how courage is identified and expressed by women. The existing framework for what is an act of courage has changed. It is also different from culture to culture and society to society. Fighting the oppressive Military Junta for decades for the sake of human rights and democracy was an obvious act of courage for Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, but running a beauty saloon at home or reading erotica was an act of courage for women under the stifling Taliban rule in Afghanistan a few years ago.
Courage can make you a Hero
Courage can be selfish and desert you. But lacking in it once doesn't mean you will always fail when the need arises. A couple of months ago, the Discovery channel had telecast a brilliant documentary on wildlife. A herd of wild buffaloes was disturbed when a lion attacked one of them. Their first instinct was, of course, to flee, leaving behind the victim of the attack. As the poor animal fought for its life, the rest of them watched from a distance. Then slowly, one after the other, all of them moved closer to the scene till about a dozen wild buffaloes seemed to have circled the predator. The next moment there was an enraged attack by the herd on the lion till the king of the jungle was forced to leave his prey and sprint to save his own life.
We cannot always wait for the fictional hero to save the day for us. Sometimes we have to be the hero. And most times we will not be acknowledged for it. We do it more for ourselves because in a situation that calls for fearlessness, we stand up for what we believe in. Without courage we are the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz who once didn't count sheep on sleepless nights because he was too scared of them. The Wizard makes the trio of the Tinman, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, finally understand that what they lack are not brains or a heart or daring, but faith in themselves. Each one of us, like The Neurotic's Notebook says, is made of flesh and blood and a miracle fibre called courage. When we use that, what we can achieve is nothing short of a miracle.
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