Courage

“Fate loves the fearless.” That was the fortune inside my wife’s fortune cookie that had been brought to her after a satisfying Chinese meal. How appropriate was that fortune days after the terrorist attack in Paris, France, in November 2015 and a day before another terrorist attack on a Radisson Hotel in Bamako, Mali? There were serious reports of terrorist threats in Belgium, and suspicion was cast on refugees streaming into Europe from war-torn areas in the Middle East. Television news reports in the United States brought all these atrocities right into our own living rooms and made it seem that attacks thousands of miles away were right there in the sanctity of our own homes.

The same television news programs that endlessly showed videos of the attacks and counterattacks also showed responses of Parisians who vowed to resume normal life despite what had happened a day or two before. These people were demonstrating courage, real courage, to live their own lives and chose not to be dominated by the perversions of a few nefarious and misguided miscreants who caused such terror and sorrow in their beautiful city.

Courage is uncommon. It is not the determination to exact revenge or to react with a fear imposed by others, but the ability to persevere on your own despite external events. It is neither denial nor is it unawareness; courage is vigilant and prudent. It is quiet but attentive. Courage is not desperate. Courage does not banish fear, but instead controls it. Those with courage do not boast about their virtue, but courage only shows itself when action is required; courage is in standby mode most of the time.

Those Parisians who reopened their cafes and those who rewalked the streets where such terrible incidents had happened just days before, even as the uncertainly of further incidents loomed over them, showed true courage. Those who sang and lit vigil candles showed courage.

Contrast this with news reports of Americans rushing to buy firearms and debating closing borders to immigrants and refugees due to fear of possible terrorist attacks. Fear of the unknown is not unnatural, but the courage to face the unknown appears to be rare.

For those of us who had served in the military during the war, the threat of death was always with us. We could see that others had been struck down or killed in action. We knew that, instead of them, it could very well be us. Living with this threat could make us crazy, cowering in the corner of our own minds. The real demons were those in our heads, and we had to come to grips with them or lose our sanity. I, and others I have talked to, had to develop the attitude that when our time come to die, we would die; until then, we had to go on with our lives. We had to rise above our fears, not to eradicate them, but to acknowledge them and control them. I would call that courage.

The United States was settled by people of courage. They had the courage to leave family, friends, and familiar surroundings and travel, sometimes thousands of miles under trying conditions, to reach places where they could aspire to better lives. Today, the refugees from the Middle East and Africa are demonstrating the same courage.

Have we gotten so soft, so used to the familiar, that we have lost the strength to stand up to uncertainty and deal with it directly? Do we now have so much invested in the status quo that we cannot risk losing it to others more determined than are we? Are we now so indoctrinated with the idea of public safety and legal liability that we are an absolutely adverse to risk? Have we lost our sense of courage?

In the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Caesar says, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” As long as we live, threats and unpleasant episodes will be with us, and it is up to us how we react. We cannot afford to die a little every day of our lives. Courage shows itself not only in regard to terrorist attacks or military action, but also in our jobs, our families, our schools, our interpersonal relationships, and our daily activities. Life is full of contingencies that could paralyze our responses if we could not rise above the risks. Courage is thus necessary to progress; lack courage leads us to become spineless and unable to act. No wonder fate loves the fearless. Progress walks Indian file behind someone willing to stick his or her neck out, no matter the consequences. That takes courage.