What is courage?


Aristotle said, “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible” and there is hardly a situation in which this is not the case.

This week I have been thinking a lot about courage and how it affects our human relationships. How many times in our lives has someone needed our help, or rejected our help, because they were overcome by fear? How many times have we failed to embrace an opportunity, or a challenge, or a responsibility because we ourselves were afraid? How many times have we kept our hands folded in our lap when someone needed assistance because it was an imposition, or a financial burden, or someone else’s job?

There seems to be an increasing tendency in this world to “set boundaries” between ourselves and those around us to prevent them from talking what we have, or from taking advantage of us, or from interfering with what we ourselves want.

Well, that kind of thinking “might” be the norm for the young who live in a fast paced technological age where people are “friended” and “unfriended” with the push of a button but it is not part of the set of values that I was raised with and it is not a natural part of the code of survival of oldsters in general.

My grandfather was an honourable and generous man – if you needed his help you could ask him for anything no matter the risk or the magnitude of the favour. He was so courageous that he was once summoned to a house in the middle of the night after receiving a note that said only “come quickly two friends need help”.  He went immediately only to discover that he was being asked to take charge of two teenage boys who had escaped from Poland on a steamer in the middle of the night during WWII. The boys had no money, no family and spoke no English and yet my grandfather did not hesitate for an instant to help them – he found a priest to take them in, he paid for their education and kept in touch with them until they became adults and found lives of their own.

From time to time, during my childhood, my grandfather would receive a letter from one of the boys (then men) letting him know how they were doing and it was only in this context that I learned how he came to know them. He never asked for praise or recognition; I was simply given the impression that this is what anyone would do. Looking back on this story now, I can appreciate the enormity of the courage that would have been required to take on a responsibility of this nature with no warning and it makes me think that perhaps it is time for a new definition of courage.

In this complex modern world where markets crash, not all cancer is curable, the threat of terrorism is an unthinkable reality, and people divorce as easily as they buy new shoes, perhaps courage should be defined as having the strength to support another person regardless of circumstance or complication.

Perhaps instead of always thinking of ourselves, maybe it is time to start thinking what would happen to someone else if we did not have the courage to stand at their side.

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