“Without courage all virtues lose their meaning.” ~ Winston Churchill
Some people live life in the fast lane. I spent most of mine on the side of the road, hood ajar, staring at a smoking engine…scratching my head.
I admired entrepreneurs and innovators like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. I admired courageous speakers against injustice (at their own personal detriment) like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela from afar … but as soon as I saw a man wearing a pink shirt walking towards me on the same footpath, I’d across the street to avoid him because brave people scared me.
One day, like the cowardly Lion of Oz in search for courage, I realized that courage was something I had all along. This reminds me of something the mystic poet Kabir once wrote: “Lions and saints never move in a group. They feel they are enough unto themselves.” A lone wolf travels in courage and solitude, he feels no need for a pack, only sheep full of fear move in a warm and cozy crowd – it gives them protection.
How can we face ourselves, what we have done, and what has befallen us if we don’t spend quality time alone, in self-analysis? Courage is perhaps the most noticeable result of taking some time out from the world in Solitude. But courage isn’t fearlessness.
Courage Isn’t Fearlessness
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (Essential Emerson)
The first question we must ask ourselves is: What is courage? Courage is being comfortable with uncertainty. That’s it!
Courageous and cowardly people aren’t that different, they both share the same human anxieties and fears that come with the unknown. The only difference is courageous people hear their fear, put their fears aside and do things anyway, while cowards listen to the fears and follow them.
We aren’t born with courage but born with the potential for it. I’ve heard many people declare that being “normal” is some kind of virtue, but if you think about it, being normal denotes a lack of courage, as the majority of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.
Paradoxically, many heroes are men who weren’t courageous enough to be cowards. They feared more the opinions of others than their own fears. The biggest hindrance of courage is to pursue dreams that are different, uncertain, or audacious, especially in regard to how other people will see them, and whether they will criticize them or not.
I’ve learnt that to be brave you must trust the uncertainty that comes with change.
Courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment. ~ Napoleon Bonaparte
Alexander The Great, Monet, and Einstein all shared one common element, they had great trust in themselves. They were all courageous enough to be different, and to conquer their fears of criticism or death.
It is commonly thought that hate is the polar opposite of love when in fact the opposite is not hate, but fear. Love expands, fear shrinks, love opens, fear closes, love trusts, fear doubts. The deeper you go into love through trust, the less fear there is.
Only in loving your dreams and wanting something badly enough will you decide that trusting uncertainty is a much more fruitful path than fearing uncertainty. Looking for safety isn’t safe, it’s taking the fun out of everything, which also includes removing risks.
With enough experience facing fears you develop a confidence that allows you to trust in your own abilities in any situation. Don’t get me wrong, confident people still feel fear, but they know they’ve coped well with situations before by trusting themselves. Most of all, they trust their intelligence enough to go into the unknown, they know that even if the whole known world disappears… they will still be able to settle and make a home in the unknown.
To inquire within and discover more about ourselves, we need trust. Only a man capable of great trust is capable of great inquiry. Mediocre fears can be appeased with mediocre explanations. Great fears can only be appeased with substantial explanations that remove every doubt. From what I have discovered, trust is the capacity to go into open waters without a map or knowledge of whether the other side exists or not.
Courage Brings Self Discovery
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. ~ Anais Nin
There are five major structures in our life: our careers, friends, culture, beliefs and hobbies. All of these require courage to transcend when the time is right. Bear with me while I explain a little bit.
Your current career was most likely chosen based on what you saw as an option, or was available to you when you were joining the workforce. In youth, we barely know ourselves (yep, believe me) and are only aware of a limited number of options that made sense at the time. What you decided to study or work in is largely due to luck.
Our friends are also the result of luck, as often the few incredible and inspiring people we met came through the fortune of education, or work. But once we have stable friendships that share our ideas and tastes, we become complacent and stop actively looking for friends that might challenge our current values and interests. Pretty soon we become stagnant.
Even more so than the careers and friends, the cultures that we’ve been raised in is purely happenstance, yet they dictate the friends and careers we have entirely. In other words, the career opportunities and the people you’ll come across are largely dominated by your country of birth. Few people migrate to other countries and those that do, do so because of work, war or love. Very few change countries or even cities because they think another place will make them happier.
Finally, what you do in your free time as a hobby is right at the bottom of the pyramid, being the happenstance hybrid bastard offspring of the other three. The same applies to your belief systems, which are dependent on the family or people you were by chance surrounded with. But these don’t make us happy. They make us bored without realizing it, because as we age boredom starts turning to fear.
If you’ve reached the end of this, I thank you for bearing with me. What I’m trying to say is that most of our lives consist of conditions that we’ve fallen into by chance. What are the odds that all the structures that form your current life which were decided by fate, are actually the best possible fit for who you are? Not very much at all. For instance, you could be a brilliant pianist born into an orthodox Muslim family. Or you could find that snowboarding fulfills you like nothing else in this world, but you were born in the Sahara desert. We need courage to discover who we are, what we like and what we’re about.
Courage creates the difference between surviving and living.
As our friend Winston Churchill said, to practice any other virtue requires at the foremost courage. Any resistance to change out of fear eventually causes suffering and stagnation. In the end it takes courage to endure the intimidating feelings of self-discovery, and resist the dull monotony of our happenstance lives.
One final message from what I’ve learnt: endurance is the key word. Courage isn’t a fearless outburst, it’s a quiet persistence that will not surrender to the fear it feels. To fail is not really a failure, it’s an opportunity to try again.
If you liked reading this article, you may also like …
The Alchemist ~ by Paulo Coelho
This book, by world famous Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, is about developing the courage to follow that tiny inner voice that is all too often snuffed out by the bustle of life. As repeated by many readers alike: this book can change your life. Read more about it here.
This article is part of The Virtues of Solitude series.