Courage and the COVID-19 Crisis
Part 1: What is courage? And why we need it now.
Posted May 08, 2020
Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic demands courage of us on multiple levels. For now, more than ever, discovering our personal and collective courage is crucial in coping with this ongoing existential threat and the death anxiety it naturally evokes (see my prior posts on death anxiety), the physical, spiritual, and psychological suffering it engenders, and the vast economic chaos and financial hardships it continues to cause.
Yet, even before this current crisis, existential courage has always been needed in human affairs. By existential courage, I mean the fundamental courage to continue to exist, survive, and thrive in a world which makes that extremely challenging and, due to the inevitability of death, ultimately impossible.
Courage is an indispensable yet surprisingly underrated and misunderstood commodity, one to which most psychologists pay relatively little attention. Human existence has always required considerable courage, yet today we tend to lose sight of the vital meaning, power, source, and significance of courage.
I am not speaking here solely of the obvious physical courage of the daredevil, boxer, soldier, or superhero; or the inspiring, selfless courage of those first-responders and frontline physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel willing to heroically risk their own health to help others—though that is truly extraordinary—but of the ordinary, heroic courage required of each of us every day, especially during these difficult times. But it is crucial to bear in mind that this is certainly not the first time humanity has faced such an existential crisis, nor will it be the last. Human beings, from the very beginning, have always needed existential courage to be in the world, overcome adversity, and create and sustain human society.
Consider, if you will, the immeasurable courage it takes to live on this perilous planet of ours, where earthquakes, tsunamis, epidemics, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, or a random meteor strike can, at any moment, destroy our dwellings and annihilate our loved ones or us. And have been doing so for millennia. We exist in an inherently dangerous world where our prehistoric ancestors would be attacked daily and devoured by lions, tigers, wolves, snakes, bears, or monstrous carnivorous dinosaurs. Or, as still happens today in the dangerous jungle of big cities, be savagely slaughtered by some rival tribe or gang, become the innocent victim of a street shooting, school massacre, or violent home invasion, or get brutally mugged or murdered 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 right out of the sky. Where another world war could be suddenly ignited by the smallest of sparks. And in which a hydrogen bomb in the hands of terrorists or during wartime could instantly vaporize entire cities and precipitate a devastating "nuclear winter" around the globe. A world in which on any given day, we or those we care for could be killed, maimed, or crippled in a random car crash, hit by a bus, or suffer a massive heart attack or debilitating stroke. Or a fascistic government can, for little or no legitimate reason, have citizens arrested and secretly executed en masse for speaking out against it, seeking freedom from its oppression, or simply for being of a certain ethnic or religious background.
We human beings have always resided in an extremely tenuous environment in which disease, famine, drought, rampant unemployment, or global economic crisis can at any time threaten not only our way of life but also our fundamental ability to feed and care for our families. Given these terrifying existential facts of life, one must wonder how our forebears and we ever mustered the requisite courage each day to get out of bed and face such a stark, absurd, harsh, and frightening reality—and how we go on doing it still, despite our present dire and discouraging circumstance.
Yet, remarkably, most of us, even prior to this deadly pandemic, were doing just that. We would get up, get dressed, go to school or work, pay the bills, face those speeding two-ton hunks of shiny chrome and steel hurtling down the freeway at breakneck speed, and contend with the myriad dangers of participating in this extraordinarily perilous and sometimes nonsensical postmodern world. How? Well, for most of us, the answer was not necessarily courage per se, but rather unconsciousness. Denial.
The easiest and most efficient way to deal with daily life was to block out our awareness of these ubiquitous and unrelenting existential threats. Then, no courage is really necessary. For where there is no perceived risk, nothing to fear, no imminent danger, who needs courage?
But there is certainly always a high cost to such strategic unconsciousness: We sacrifice our vitality, self-awareness, sensitivity, and capacity to fully perceive and experience our existence in all its volatility, terror, horror, beauty, awe, and wonder. Of course, we all need and seek some sense of comfort, safety, control, and security in life. Self-deception serves this defensive purpose and is, to some extent, psychologically sensible: Too much unvarnished existential 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 subtle lack of courage: the courage to see life as it truly is. And to love it nonetheless.
However, the novel coronavirus crisis has, for some, changed all that. We are now no longer so easily able to stick our collective heads in the sand and deny the fact that existence is intrinsically risky, insecure, and, especially at this moment, very dangerous. But no less so than it has always been, and always will be. Coming to grips with this grim existential reality requires great courage right now.
What is courage? And where does it come from? Courage is, of course, synonymous with bravery, valor, and fortitude. But today, we seem to have lost our deeper comprehension of the true essence of courage. The word courage comes originally from the French root cour or Coeur, which means heart. So cour-age has to do with the heart, that vital muscle that keeps our blood flowing and sustains life. The human heart may be surgically repaired or replaced, can be broken by life's frustrations, losses, and disappointments, or filled with joy and love, but without it, we cannot exist. Symbolically, the heart represents the spiritual core or innermost center of our emotional life, especially love or eros, as well as of courage. Today, this cardiological connotation of courage persists when we refer to someone very brave as "having a lot of heart." Or to a not-so-courageous person as being "faint-hearted."
Actor and director Mel Gibson's stirring portrayal of the hot-headed Scottish freedom-fighter William Wallace in Braveheart provides an example of the vital link between anger, rage, and creativity. Centuries ago, the concept of courage referred specifically to the presence of daimonic passions (see Diamond, 1996) in general, such as sexual lust, love, anger, resentment, or rage. Indeed, anger, rage, or even hatred can sometimes incite, solidify, and fortify one's inner courage, and may be inextricably related to it. (Consider, for example, Uma Thurman's resentful and revenge-driven character in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films.) Courage often comes from chronic feelings of frustration with fate or circumstance and a furious resolve to try to change the situation for the better. As the famous cartoon figure, Popeye the Sailor Man, says: "That's all's I can stand, and I can't stands no more!"
In some cases, love and sexual passion can also be a catalyst for courage. Falling in love or infatuation can encourage us to reach out to one another and risk a sexual and intimate interpersonal relationship despite the inevitable vulnerability involved. To truly love and commit to someone takes tremendous courage. But, more generally, courage is a kind of strength, power, or resolve to respond to a frightening, threatening, disturbing, or challenging situation soberly and directly rather than running from or avoiding it. To do what must be done with commitment and integrity when our resources are pushed to the absolute limit. When our initial reaction is to take flight, to retreat, to run away.
Courage can transcend the primal or instinctual impulse for self-preservation, security, comfort, and maintenance of the status quo, which is precisely what makes it so precious and necessary. Indeed, courage is required in almost every basic human activity or endeavor from an early age. For example, eventually separating from our parents during adolescence and forging an independent adult life for ourselves is a truly courageous act. To survive an abusive, traumatic, or neglected childhood with some sense of dignity and integrity intact requires tremendous courage and resilience. Growing old and dealing with the inevitability of losses, suffering, and ultimately death demands considerable courage. (See my prior post, "Staring at Sixty.")
It takes immense courage to authentically be oneself in the world and, as May (1976) points out in his book The Courage to Create, to dare to be truly creative, to artistically express and expose one's innermost self to the world. Career or relationship changes take courage, as does aggressively standing up for one's principles and pursuing one's fondest dreams or, as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it, to "follow your bliss." 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 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 just before being crucified ("O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me."), as well as Mahatma Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's courageous commitment to passive, non-violent resistance.
Accepting and submitting to some "higher power" or to one's own personal conception of "god" or deity requires real courage. Standing up to evil and fighting for what we truly believe in demands 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 phony spiritual pretension. Paradoxically, it can be a courageous and deeply encouraging act to confess our vulnerability, sensitivity, anxiety, or despair to someone, as in the act of confession in Catholicism or confiding in a close friend or psychotherapist. This is the courage of intimacy, vulnerability, and authenticity.
We need courage to creatively encounter fate, defeat despair, and heroically find and fulfill our destiny. There exists a close connection between creativity—be it that of the artist, scientist, politician, teacher, doctor, nurse, or the ordinary citizen coping with the many challenges of our current coronavirus crisis—and courage. For example, when composer Ludwig van Beethoven discovered he was losing his hearing at the age of 28, he became understandably depressed about his tragic fate. He fell into deep despair. Then rage. But eventually, his anger gave him the courage needed to belligerently encounter and challenge his fate and, thereby, fulfill his musical destiny, furiously resolving to "rise superior to every obstacle" and "take Fate by the throat; it shall not wholly overcome me." Despite total deafness, Beethoven bravely went on to compose his most heroic, powerful, and beautiful music right up until his death three decades later. He had the courage (and innate talent) to meet his own existential crisis with extraordinary creativity.
Likewise, for each of us facing such pivotal moments, life is begging a similar existential question: Can we discover the courage to face and defeat our fear, to do what must be done, or will we be defeated by it? Can we call forth what existential theologian Paul Tillich (1952) called our spiritual "courage to be"? Or will we succumb to cowardice, despair, and discouragement?
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. See Part 2 here.
Tillich, P. (1952). The courage to be. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.
May, R. (1976). The courage to create. New York: Bantam Books.
Diamond, S.A. (1996). Anger, madness, and the daimonic: The psychological genesis of violence, evil, and creativity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.