Think for a moment about what it takes for an individual or a couple to see a therapist for the very first time. Whether the therapist was recommended by a friend, found in an online directory or selected by coin flip, any new client finds themselves walking into the unknown. Not only that but, the outcome the person hopes for is not certain either. Many people might be afraid this therapist person might find them "crazy" or worse "unfixable." None of those thoughts are ever true but, at the moment they walk into the office people aren't so sure. They are anxious. And yet, they come. Perhaps overcoming great fear, they come. And as a therapist I have come to greatly respect all my clients due to the courage they display every day in my office.
Looking at oneself requires courage. Many people may not think of courage quite like that but, therapists do. It is far easier to look elsewhere for “answers” than to look to ourselves. As a result of bearing witness to other’s courage for so many years, I’ve done a lot of thinking about courage. That is, how to describe the courage I feel privileged to bear witness to in my work. What circumstances are we likely to act courageously. And whether or not some possess courage and some may not.
In considering courage as topic for this piece, I did what many of you might do, I consulted the dictionary. Two dictionaries to be precise. The first was Webster’s, which defines courage as, “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” The second, the Oxford dictionary defined courage as: “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.”
Neither of these definitions quite satisfied me. Although they came close, they failed to adequately capture what my experience of courage has been. For example, both of these definitions refer to “danger” but, only one mentions “fear.” I certainly have noted that fear or what we call in our modern world “anxiety” or “stress” is always present when people act courageously. My experience has been that fear is always present when undertaking an act of courage. In fact, I think fear is a vital component of courage. Put another way, I do not believe courage stands alone from fear. Fear, it seems to me, is a predicate of courage. If we are not fearful then, we do not need to draw upon our courage. We can, at any time, succumb to fear. However, once we draw upon courage, we may not succeed but, we are not going to succumb.
Both definitions seem to me to imply that courage is a “quality” or a “strength” that some possess and others do not. I believe everyone possesses the capacity to be courageous. As the video clip below highlights, ordinary people do extraordinary things every day.
The Oxford definition includes “bravery” as part of its definition. I believe there to be a distinct difference between “courage” and “bravery.” I do not suggest at all that one is the lesser of the other. Just that I believe there to be an important difference in meaning between the two. One, “bravery” I view as motivated by external circumstances. Ask any “hero” if they see themselves as a hero and they will tell you they only did what anyone would have done in the same circumstance. The other, “courage” is motivated by internal circumstances. Courage is the internal state which causes us to say to ourselves, “I may not want to but, I must.”
So, I view the capacity to be courageous as a universal quality everyone possesses and has readily available. We may not always choose to tap into our courage but, courage is available to us at all times. I do not view courage as a “strength” any more than breathing is a “strength.” In fact, the word “courage” comes from Latin “cor” or “heart.” We all have a heart, right? Therefore, in my mind we all possess courage. Moreover, the only time we do not possess courage are moments when we tell ourselves that we are not “courageous.”
Lastly, courage is necessary only when the outcome we desire is either unknown or uncertain. Therefore, courage is available to us when it is most needed. Courage is averrable when we decide to ask the boss for a raise; speak in public; approach our partner with what we know will be a difficult conversation; pick up the phone when we are waiting for news from the doctor’s office or enter a therapist’s office for the first time. Our courage is, I believe, always with us. And, if you think about it, you have drawn on your courage more than you might have known. In fact, you probably acted courageously at least once today.
So, here is my definition of courage. This definition is a work in progress but it is a result, as I hope I’ve shown here, of having witnessed courage on a daily basis for almost 18 years. I welcome your comments.