What is courage?

This definition of courage is as good as any other.

“Courage is a quality of spirit that enables you to face danger or pain without showing fear.”

Then there is the more profound understanding that you can be afraid and still have courage. Mark Twain said, “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.”

The Truth is sometimes about 180 degrees out from what you think it is. I think before going deeper into understanding what courage is, it will be helpful to shatter some misconceptions about what courage isn’t.

I’m going to share the kind of understanding of courage I grew up with. I think it’s the common understanding. Then I’ll share with you what a Marine Corp Staff Sergeant taught me that caused me to re-evaluate everything I believed about what courage is.

Growing up as a boy I saw the John Wayne movies and learned to associate courage with fighting a fierce enemy and being a hero. Courage becomes something boys and young men aspire to have. Particularly in an effort to become what we think a man should be, we want others to see us as having courage. We don’t want to be perceived by other boys, and especially girls, as being a coward, sissy, or wimp. All of these are relative labels of courage.

For boys and young men, developing courage becomes an important part of the self image and self esteem we create in our mind. How others think of us in terms of courage becomes an important part of that self esteem and self acceptance equation. Women may not relate to this in the same way because they were not raised with the same expectations as boys. Feeling a need to gain approval and acceptance in this attribute also varies with the culture. For me as a boy growing up it was important to demonstrate courage of some sort or risk being made fun of and be considered a wimpy. Self acceptance and feeling better about myself was hinged to the labels and expectations others might put on me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

When I was in college I was fortunate to spend some time with a Marine Corp Staff Sergeant (SSgt). Let’s call him SSgt. Matt because I haven’t seen him in years and don’t have permission to put his name here. SSgt. Matt taught me something about the common misunderstanding of courage that I never forgot.

SSgt. Matt had qualified for a very competitive Marine Corp officer program that enabled him to go to college and get his degree. After which he would be commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corp and continue his service. He was using his time there to study Military History. In short he was smart. He also had an well developed ability to think laterally. By that I mean outside the box of conventional perspective. This was continually demonstrated by his sense of humor and story telling that could hold your attention while keeping you in stitches. But I digress. The point is that as a die hard Marine he knew about courage. Not just from a soldier’s point of view. He knew about military men, their actions, motivations, human psychology, bravery, and fear because he studied it.

We were both between classes one day and I got into a conversation with SSgt. Matt and he was educating me about the psychology men. He was talking about different armies going all the way back to ancient Greece and Sparta and describing the training that made them disciplined and successful. How some were able to function so tightly and effectively as a unit and win against overwhelming odds. He explained the real motivation that a soldier fights in ways that exemplify courage.

SSgt Matt shared with me that when most people think of soldiers who do things like run out of foxholes and rush a machine gun nest they think of that as courage. We think facing such a thing and doing it exemplifies the trait of courage. They are facing their fears, including their fear of death and they act in spite of their fears. This fits with my previous understanding and definitions of courage above. People get confirmation of this belief by the military (the supposed authority on courage) by giving medals for exemplifying “courage” in the line of fire in these situations.

Here is the bit if truth that is 180 degrees from our assumptions. SSgt. Matt told me the real reason that soldiers rush the machine gun nest is because they are afraid. They are afraid of letting their buddies down. They are afraid of what their buddy in that fox hole will think of them if they don’t. They are afraid of being thought of as a coward. They are afraid of losing the respect from their peers that they spent the previous months or years bonding with. They are more afraid of this personal rejection and shame than they are of death. They go face the machine gun because they can’t stand the idea of their self image if they let their buddy down.

I’m not saying this is a cowardly or bad thing. And of course every person in every situation is different. I’m just recognizing that it may not be the kind of fearless courage that we would assume applies from our growing up years. There is more to the motivation. You can’t call it fearless or “courageous” when rushing a gun position might be motivated by a bigger fear of personal rejection and self judgment.

With this larger understanding it was harder to measure courage in the same way. I could no longer look at the same action and say that it exemplified courage. It may have exemplified a much larger and hidden fear that motivated their action.

I’m going back to what I said earlier about young boys and men growing up. When we are afraid of what others think of us we will have a need to prove our self in order to compensate for that uncomfortable fear. We have a need to do something brave to avoid the ridicule, rejection, and shame that would come with disappointing others.

I do the emotional calculation this way. The greater is a person’s insecurity and fear of being rejected, the greater their need to prove themselves worthy to another. What is interesting that this kind of agreement in the mind makes a person easy to control through the power of opinion.

SSgt. Matt pointed this out about boot camp. When they get a new recruit there is an important mental game of breaking down a person’s individual identity. In doing this they take away the self esteem they had associated to their individual identity. They then recognize and reward people for being team players and taking care of their buddy. In this way your worth as a person is dependent on how well you work with and support the unit. Your self esteem and self worth is determined by what you do for another.

The corollary agreement in the mind becomes: If you let your unit down, you are unworthy. This in it self can be a motivator to do what others expect from you. Your actions are more driven by reactions to these agreements about self worth than conscious choice. If this is the case a person who looks courageous is really just reacting to fears about a self image associated to a lower self esteem. In their mind they tell themselves it is being brave. The culture they are in, such as the military, agrees that it is brave and supports this perception. To everyone who doesn’t know they are compensating for other fears they look courageous.

However, if you have a greater awareness you may not be so quick to make the assumption that someone is courageous based just on their actions. You might wait and get to know them better. They might just be compensating for even larger fears that they don’t yet have the courage to face. I also understand that at the same time a soldier also fights because of their care and respect for their fellow soldier.

My point here is that after I had that conversation with Marine SSgt. Matt I realized I needed a different definition for courage.

I needed a definition of courage that didn’t include running away from bigger fears.

In my next post I share what I feel is Real Courage.