Sunday, December 23, 2012


"Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities ... because it is the quality which guarantees all others." ~Sir Winston Churchill

When I was a freshman in college, I took a class during which we learned how to rappel.  The culmination of the instruction of that part of the class was that each student had an opportunity to descend by rope from the top of a tower that stood three stories high. 

At the beginning of the semester, in my 18 year-old mind, that endeavor didn't seem to me like it was going to be too tough.  I wasn't scared of heights, and I was in pretty good physical condition.  I listened carefully to the instructor talk about the technique and the safety information, and I watched videos of others rappelling.  When the day of the descent finally arrived, I confidently climbed up to the top of the tower, hooked in to the roping gear, and backed up to the edge.  And then I looked down - and that's when the fear hit me.

I tried in vain to talk myself into stepping off the ledge for several minutes.  The instructor, who had positioned another instructor at the top, shouted words of encouragement to me from down below.  My legs just wouldn't move.  Finally, the guy at the top said, "The longer you stand there, the harder it's going to get to take that first step.  On my count of three, you're going to step off.  One, two, ..."  I took a deep breath, and I did it.  The warmth of the sun on my face, the feeling of gliding so freely, and the big burst of adrenaline all hit me at once, and I loved it.  It was, in the true sense of the word, awesome.  

But the best part of the descent was at the bottom, and it came from the words spoken by the instructor, words that I have thought about many times since that day:  "And that," he said as he turned from watching me to address the rest of the class,  "is a perfect example of the difference between courage and bravery.  Bravery is something a person can be born with, but courage is something we have to dig deep to find.  It's natural and often even smart to be afraid, but, as long as you are prepared, you can't let that stop you from forging ahead - and that's courage."

Before that day, I had never considered that there was a difference at all between courage and bravery; I actually thought they were synonyms.  Upon further consideration, though, I began to see that there is a distinction between those two words.  Bravery is the ability to confront pain or danger when one is not afraid.  Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to take on a difficult situation or pain in spite of the presence of fear.  Courage requires using a thought process in order to overcome a natural emotion; it is the willful choice to forge ahead regardless of the possible consequences.  A courageous person understands the risks of the task but is driven to participate anyway for a greater purpose.  

From my perspective, there are a couple of different types of courage:  Physical Courage, which often involves overcoming fear of the risk of pain or death to do things - like rappelling, getting up to try again after falling off a bike, running into a burning building to rescue someone, climbing a mountain, or undergoing a medical procedure.  Here's a video that gives a great example of physical courage (it's 17 minutes long but well worth taking the time to view it!):

And then there is Mental Courage, which may involve doing something that poses a risk of something negative socially happening, like embarrassment or rejection.  This includes things like standing up to a bully, giving a speech to a crowd, disregarding peer pressure, and being a leader.  It also encompasses ethics and doing the right thing, even when that puts one at risk for consequences such as disapproval of others.  It's pushing past a fear of rejection to put oneself "out there" by being true to one's own beliefs and essentially to oneself.  And that is how courage is linked to the most bonding of human traits: vulnerability.  A person who has the courage to accept that he isn't perfect but the depth to love himself and to see himself as worthy anyway not only ends up being a happier person but also gains a different kind of strength than cannot be gained in any other way.  And, in accepting himself as an imperfect being, he shows others that variances - and vulnerability - are the essence of the beauty of life.  

What I have taken away from that is the understanding that courage has to do with perspective and with the way we adapt to the challenges and to the circumstances of our lives.  

Without a doubt, what my dad had a great amount of physical courage, and I think that was likely something about him that a lot of people noticed and admired.  What I have found to be even more impressive about him, though, and what I hope to go out having had is the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to oneself and to others, the conviction to stand up for myself and for people and things that are important to me, and, last but not least, the courage and the confidence to show vulnerability, which, really, is the thing that connects us as human beings. Vulnerability, like the imperfections seen in granite, is what makes people unique, memorable, and beautiful. 

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