I was in the theatre audience listening to a stand-up comic. We hadn’t gone to see him, he was just the warm up guy. He was telling filthy stories about people I greatly respected. I wanted to leave but I was hemmed in by those seated on my row and I knew if I stood up and tried to squeeze past them, I would immediately draw attention to myself and become the butt of his offensive scorn. I’ve always regretted that I sat tight and lacked the moral courage to do what I felt was right.
So what is the nature of courage and where does it come from?
Courage to overcome fear
I wish I had been like those people who do things instinctively without any fearful reservations. Like the loving parent who jumps into a freezing river to save her drowning child. The adrenaline rush for action takes over. Would we say such a person was brave?
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear — (Nelson Mandela)
Some would say courage, in addition to overcoming fear, is also needed to deal with any personal challenge like that of pain or adversity.
Courage as an individual matter
We are all different. Some of us need courage to ask for forgiveness, say no to an unreasonable demand, seek help, give up on an abusive relationship, and so on. It depends on our particular strengths and weaknesses, what triggers fear in us, what our motivation might be. Whatever it is, however, if courage is needed, there is going to be an inner conflict.
Courage of Beatrice
For the last 8 years of her life, Beatrice suffered many bodily problems, including much pain, incontinence, and confusion. From being able to get about with the aid of her walking frame, to requiring a wheelchair and later being bed-bound, one would say her quality of life was in steady decline.
Towards the end she was unable to read or listen to the radio or television. Yet when visited on a weekly basis by a family member, she never complained about her situation, except occasionally to give an involuntary wince if moved.
Beatrice had always been a strong-willed and independently minded person who minimised her illness and infirmity. You might say now she didn’t have any choice but to accept her situation: however, I felt she showed great courage in enduring her hardships with a brave face. I noticed she was always ready to engage in a cheery word. She was an inspiration to us all and was regarded with affection and respect by her professional carers.
Courage of Gandhi and Mother Teresa
Mohandas Gandhi was willing to undergo pain and hunger in South Africa and India for the sake of peacefully helping the plight of those experiencing discrimination. Mother Teresa left her home to teach in Calcutta, later choosing to live among and help the destitute and starving. We admire them both because we assume they found courage in overcoming attachment to self-orientated interests for the sake of their higher principles.
Courage as a spiritual gift
According to a religious viewpoint, the courage to overcome adversity is a spiritual gift.
“We may say ‘This is more than flesh and blood can bear.’ but we are more than flesh and blood, we are spiritual beings.” (Henry T. Hamblin)
In other words, courage is not something we can create for ourselves but can be received from a higher power. Religion teaches that having the Divine Spirit active in our lives means we can go beyond what we thought were our limits: for with God, the sacred text says, all things are possible.
Courage and an inner battle
If we are experiencing difficult times, then it is like night-time with no warmth of the sun to enliven effort and hope. Faced by obstacles we feel like giving up. We are in the cold of night and our fears have shown their face. Yet there is still some light to show us the way forward – the reflected light of the moon is there to guide us. We may not feel positive about things but nevertheless we can see a possible way through our problems and can choose to go forward if we wish.
According to Emanuel Swedenborg, this state of mind is like an inner battle for the person of faith which often recurs. We are faced with a choice. On the one hand we can tune into our demons who are tempting us to give in to cowardly thoughts: “Don’t take a risk for you might come a cropper,” “Don’t do what you think is right because people will disapprove.” On the other hand we can tune into our angels defending us with higher aspirations. And the best bit of this theory is the notion that if we do not yield to what is negative, then the Lord God will provide us with the courage we need to follow what we feel called to do.
“A man of courage is also full of faith.” (Marcus Tullius Cicero)
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems