What Is Courage? Lessons From the Cowardly Lion
Tapping into your inner hero.
Posted Apr 28, 2011
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
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 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.
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.
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.