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What Is Courage? Lessons From the Cowardly Lion

Tapping into your inner hero.

Courage is an indispensable yet--even in psychotherapy--surprisingly underrated commodity. Life requires courage. Yet we tend to lose sight of its vital meaning, power and importance. I am not speaking solely here of the obvious physical courage of the daredevil, boxer, soldier or superhero, or the selfless courage of those willing to risk their own skin to rescue others, but of the extraordinary, heroic courage demanded of each of us every day.

Consider the courage it takes to live on this undeniably dangerous planet of ours, where earthquakes, tsunamis, epidemics, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes or a random meteor strike can, at any moment, destroy our dwellings and kill us or our loved ones, as tragically happened in Alabama and Mississippi this week. Or where we and our forebears could daily be attacked and eaten by lions, tigers, wolves, snakes, bears or monstrous dinosaurs like T-Rex. Or savagely murdered by some rival tribe or gang, be the innocent victim of a street shooting, school massacre or violent home invasion, or brutally mugged in the park or street. Where routine commercial airplane flights can be hijacked by religious or political fanatics and deliberately crashed

into some building or blown out of the sky. Where, as in Japan most recently, nuclear reactors catastrophically fail, contaminating our air, food and water. And where a hydrogen bomb in the hands of terrorists or during wartime could instantly vaporize entire cities and precipitate a devastating "nuclear winter" across the planet. A world where, on any given day, we or those we care for could be killed or crippled in a car crash, hit by a bus, or suffer a massive heart attack or debilitating stroke. Or where a fascistic government can for little or no reason have citizens arrested and secretly executed for speaking out, seeking freedom, or simply being of a certain ethnic background. A world in which famine, drought, rampant unemployment or global economic crisis can profoundly threaten not only our way of life, but our fundamental ability to feed our families. Given these terrifying facts of life, how do we muster the courage each day to get out of bed and face such stark, existential reality?

Yet, most of us do just that. We get up, get dressed, go to school or work, face the speeding two-ton hunks of shiny steel hurtling down the freeway, the abusive spouse, parent or boss, and the ever-present dangers of participating in this extraordinarily perilous postmodern place. How? Well, for most, the solution is unconsciousness. Denial. The easiest way is to block out our awareness of these ubiquitous existential threats. Then, no courage is really necessary. For where there is no perceived risk, nothing to fear, no threat, who needs courage? But there is definitely a high cost to this strategic unconsciousness: We sacrifice our vitality, self-awareness, sensitivity and capacity to fully experience our environment in all its volatile terror, beauty and wonder. Of course, we all need some sense of comfort, safety and security in life. Such self-deception (see my prior post) serves this defensive purpose, and is, to some extent, psychologically sound. Too much reality can be overwhelming for the fragile human psyche. Yet, this universal tendency toward rendering ourselves oblivious or blind to life's inherent riskiness can itself be seen as a failure of courage.

What is courage? Courage is a kind of strength, power or resolve to meet a scary circumstance head on. Courage is called upon whenever we confront a difficult, frightening, painful or disturbing situation. When our resources are challenged or pushed to the absolute limit. When we feel threatened, weak, vulnerable, intimidated or terrified. When our first instinctive reaction is to flee. At such times, life is begging an existential question of us: Can we find the courage to face and defeat our fear, or will we be defeated by it? Can we call forth what theologian Paul Tillich called our "courage to be" ? Or will we cowardly choose instead, as Shakespeare's Hamlet deliberates, "not to be"? (See my prior posts on Hercules and the hero myth.)

Courage, is of course, synonymous with bravery and fortitude. But today, we have lost the true essence of courage. The word courage comes from the French root cour or coeur, which means heart. So courage has to do with the heart, that vital muscle that keeps our blood flowing and sustains life. Symbolically, the heart represents the spiritual core or innermost center of feelings, especially eros. Many centuries ago, the concept of courage referred to the emotions, feelings or daimonic passions in general, including lust, love, anger or rage. Love and sexual passion can be the catalyst for courageous action. A mother's love for her children can lead to courageously laying her life down to save her offspring. Falling in love and sexual lust encourage us to reach out to one another and risk relationship. And platonic love and compassion encourages us to selflessly help those less fortunate than ourselves, say, as in the case of Mother Teresa.

The connection between anger, rage and courage (cou-rage) is especially key: Courage often requires the energizing, fortifying daimonic affects of anger or rage to precipitate, fuel or sustain it. As Rollo May (1981) explains, "Encountering one's destiny requires strength, whether the encounter takes the form of embracing, accepting, or attacking. . . . Constructive anger is one way of encountering destiny." And, I would add, of generating courage. As well as countering apathy, depression and despair. Today, this more complex understanding of courage persists when we refer to someone very brave as "having a lot of heart," i.e., being intensely passionate. Mel Gibson's character, hot-tempered Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace in Braveheart (1995) is a fine example of such raging courage.

Courage is required in almost every basic human activity or endeavor. For instance, to allow oneself to love and commit to another person takes immense courage. Separating from our parents and forging an independent life for ourselves is a courageous act. To survive an abusive, traumatic or neglected childhood with some sense of dignity and integrity intact demonstrates tremendous courage and resilience. Getting old demands courage. (See my prior post "Staring at Sixty.") It takes courage to authentically be oneself in the world, and, as May (1976) points out in The Courage to Create, to dare to be truly creative, to artistically express and expose one's innermost self. Career or relationship changes require courage As does pursuing one's fondest dreams, or, as Joseph Campbell put it, to "follow your bliss." Indeed, it takes terrific courage to live, and to do so creatively, lovingly, meaningfully and productively.

Courage also comes into play when morality and spirituality are at stake. Moral or spiritual courage is what motivates us to do the right thing, to right a wrong, to take a stand for some dearly held moral principle or spiritual value despite the personal price or public opinion. This kind of courage is exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth's crisis of courage in the Garden of Gethsemane ("O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.") and Mahatma Gandhi's or Martin Luther King's commitment to passive, non-violent resistance. Standing up to evil and fighting for what we truly believe in takes moral courage, especially when it places one's own physical safety or that of one's family at risk. Spiritual or moral courage is what allows us to acknowledge our human failings, weakness and fears, and accept rather than conceal them behind a facade of macho bravado or spiritual pretension. Paradoxically, it can be a courageous and encouraging act to confess our vulnerability, sensitivity, anxiety or despair to others.

Evil deeds, such as mass murders or serial killings, may seem to some to take courage. But such courage is pathologically displaced and perverted. These cowardly violent perpetrators failed or refused to muster the courage to establish a place in and constructively contribute to society. Theirs is a wicked rage for recognition. Suicide can, in some extreme situations, take courage, but, more often than not, is more a manifestation of cowardice than courage. The same may be said of nihilism, a deeply discouraged, sweeping negation and devaluation of life as meaningless. "Courage," writes Tillich (1952), "is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of . . . ambiguity, while the negation of life because of its negativity is an expression of cowardice." Courage is needed to tolerate and, as much as possible without pathologically distorting reality, transform meaninglessness into meaning. For, as C.G. Jung concludes, "Man cannot stand a meaningless life."

We need courage to constructively encounter fate, defeat despair, and to heroically find and fulfill our destiny. For example, when composer Ludwig van Beethoven discovered he was losing his hearing at the age of twenty-eight, he became understandably depressed about his unfortunate fate. He fell into despair. Then rage. And eventually, his anger gave him the courage needed to encounter his fate and fulfill his musical destiny, resolving to "rise superior to every obstacle" and "take Fate by the throat." Despite total deafness, Beethoven bravely went on to compose his most heroic and beautiful music right up until his death at fifty-seven.

Courage, learns the "Cowardly Lion" in the classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939), is something without which we can have no real self-esteem, pride or power, and must ultimately come from within rather than without. He is so guilt-ridden and ashamed of his own fear, anxiety and perceived cowardice that he cannot recognize his innate courage as he bravely accompanies Dorothy and Toto to see the Wizard of Oz. As he is finally wisely counseled by the Wizard, fear, fleeing and inaction is not necessarily to be equated with cowardice. For, as the saying goes, "Discretion can often be the better part of valor." Sometimes it takes more courage to tactically back away from a confrontation than to mindlessly attack. To stand down rather than further escalate a treacherous crisis. Part of wisdom is knowing when to do which. To be able to consciously pick and choose our battles rather than unconsciously or impulsively reacting.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but moving ahead despite fear. For if there is no fear, who needs courage? Of course, encouragement--the supportive provision of exhortation-- can, as in the movie, be sought and received, and much of psychotherapy consists of such clinical encouragement to face, accept and fight to become one's self in the world. Indeed, Alfred Adler recognized that one of the most common underlying conditions in patients seeking psychotherapy is discouragement. In this sense, the "great and powerful" Wizard of Oz is an archetypal representation of the psychotherapist, upon whom much power and wisdom is projected by the patient. And, as the timeless story makes clear, seeking such professional assistance is itself an act of courage, a bold and decisive step toward healing and wholeness.

Fascinatingly, in L. Frank Baum's book (1900), upon which the film was based, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz prescribes a potion to bolster the Cowardly Lion's courage. Alcohol has traditionally been referred to as "liquid courage," but, of course, its fortifying effects last only as long as intoxication. Psychiatric medications (see my prior post)--many of which, whether recognized or not by physicians, are external sources of "biochemical courage"-- are widely prescribed today for depression, phobias, anxiety disorders, psychosis and other fundamentally discouragement-related symptoms and syndromes. (See my prior post on "clinical despair.") In the positive sense, these drugs can, for many, temporarily provide the courage to survive devastating traumas and deal with reality rather than escaping from it. But ultimately, courage must be discovered internally, and seems to spring from a place in us we previously never knew existed, some secret reservoir or inner source of strength, sustenance and steeliness in the face of life's inevitable catastrophes, frustrations and disappointments.

In the final analysis, courage is essentially an existential choice. Courage is the empowering experience of a decision to stand up and withstand the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." And, when wounded or knocked down, to pick oneself up, dust oneself off, and "keep on keepin' on." A choice to stand and fight when appropriate rather than run. To tolerate or attack rather than cower and withdraw. To persevere rather than quit. To act with integrity rather than expedience. To take responsibility rather than slough it off. To embrace reality rather than retreat from it. To move forward in life rather than regress or stagnate. To create rather than destroy. To love rather than hate. To deal with one's demons rather than not. To consciously face the existential facts of suffering, infirmity and death rather than denying them. If truth be told, the archetypal virtue of courage--true courage rather than mere bravado--is a prime determinant of what we do with life. And what we don't do with it. And of how we feel about ourselves. Like the Cowardly Lion, who constantly looks for courage outside himself, we may already be more courageous, more heroic, than we imagine. Acknowledging our past acts of courage, tapping into our innate capacity to be courageous, and seeking professional encouragement (psychotherapy, though see my prior post on psychotherapy addiction) when needed is a constructive means of marshaling the requisite courage to face the sometimes daunting past, present and future, whatever it may bring.

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