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Extracts from an essay on 'Courage'

19 April 2016

Mark Vernon

Extracts from an essay on ‘Courage’, by Mark Vernon, part of our partnership with The School of Life

Courage is a widely celebrated virtue, one that underpins our capacity to embrace and enjoy life, but there is more to it than simply being brave. It is not the absence of fear. This was the mistake the Cowardly Lion made in the Wizard of Oz. Rather, it is the capacity to feel fear and wisely use the insights that experience brings.

The diarist Anne Frank also shows us how courage can be used to face the huge mix of feelings that can well up inside, feelings that are difficult to tolerate but that can help us to build relationships and to reach the good things in life. That is one of the reasons why it is so inspiring to see courage in others: we feel that life has expanded for them, as Charles Lindbergh noted.

There are insights into courage from developmental psychology too, namely that we need a degree of trust and sense of security in life in order to venture out, to explore what's new, and to be bold. And courage can be nurtured too, as ancient philosophers like Aristotle argued. It is a question of seizing the little opportunities in life to practice it. Then, when something truly demanding happens, we may find that we are better resourced to face it courageously. Surrounding yourself with courageous people can be helpful too, as Rosa Parks reported in her autobiography.

There is a crucial ethical element to consider as well, because bad people can seem courageous at times, only what they don't do is offer their courage selflessly, but rather use it for their own gain and for the exploitation of others. It is not moral courage, the type of courage that we perhaps celebrate the most.

To read the essay in full, please click here.