Courage is a virtue

09/30/2020

My how the events of this year have challenged us. When opening a conversation with a friend, a colleague or a patient with “How are you?,” I am leaning in to hear the complexity of the response. We are navigating so much.

I recently learned a term that has arisen in this wild time: “doomscrolling.” Perhaps you’ve participated in this—reading through story after story about the many captivating realities of the moment, whether pandemic, wildfire, climate catastrophe, economic peril, racial injustice, political brinksmanship, or the unraveling of the fabric holding our democracy and society together. Perhaps you, like some people I know, read the headlines before going to bed, and check in with the news upon rising in the morning. Perhaps thoughts of current events and future possibilities keep you awake at night. 

Not surprisingly, the more time we spend reading stories of crisis and catastrophe, the more anxious and depressed we become. On the other hand, a growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that aligning our lives and our behaviors with virtues like courage increases our individual health, wellbeing and happiness. 

Perhaps you have successfully set boundaries around your news consumption, taking in what you need to be aware of but not risking your mental or physical health. Even if you are not excessively reading the news, it is challenging simply to live in a time of such upheaval and uncertainty, of divisiveness, existential peril and staggering loss. Perhaps the one thing that is predictable is the likelihood that such challenge will become more and more part of our normal experience.

What qualities of being or character strengths can we cultivate to carry us through this, and whatever comes next? What allows us to rise above the fear that drives so much of our anxiety and leaves us vulnerable to manipulation and control?

Courage, a word stemming from the Latin word for “heart,” is one such attribute. One of the human virtues described in ancient times, courage is honored in all cultures as essential to a life well-lived and is studied in the field of positive psychology. This strength is defined as “the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.” Distinct from “bravery,” its heart root speaks to the quality of being that allows us to align our actions with goodness, even when it is difficult. 

We draw upon courage when we seek to be agents of change. We draw upon courage when we speak truth to those in power, and when we speak against social wrongs even when others around us remain silent or complicit or are violently enacting them. We draw upon courage when we look deep within to understand the barriers to our connection with someone who has beliefs different from our own.

The field of positive psychology is dedicated to the scientific understanding of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. It has much to say about virtues like courage and the character strengths that allow for courage. Say, for example, that I am interested in developing the psychological courage it takes to have curious, open-hearted, non-judgmental conversations with family at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Knowing from past experience how daunting and disorienting such conversations are, but yearning to understand my family’s perspective, which inner strengths might help me keep oriented? In a deeply divided country, courageously applying ourselves to our inner work is of utmost importance, particularly as it applies to a deepened understanding of one another.

An essential strength that allows us to act with courage is integrity, that quality of adhering to moral and ethical principles. Integrity is also defined as “being whole and undivided,” which requires being true to ourselves. To be true to ourselves we must really know ourselves. In my example, courageously approaching a conversation about, say, climate change, with, say, my parents, requires an honest account of the quality of being that I bring to the conversation. Am I slipping into the old patterns of wanting to be right, of wanting to win an argument? What is my motivation for having the conversation in the first place? Do I deeply and respectfully want to understand their perspective? Can I truly refrain from passing judgment on their belief system? The extent to which we courageously look for our own opportunities for inner growth expands our capacity to be entrusted with someone else’s thoughts, and to find the common ground that creates connection.

Cultivating courage also takes persistence. As I attempt to reach across the partisan divide in my family, I find that I may slip in and out of true integrity in any given conversation; at times I want to surrender, to write off the whole effort as a waste of life energy. On a tender day, hearing their judgment of my belief systems throws me off center. Whatever the challenge we face—and there are so many these days—realigning ourselves again and again with the heartening, virtuous energies of truth, love, justice and humility, among others, provides the ballast we need to weather the storm.

Courage entails not only facing that which we fear, but also taking action, no matter how challenging. Whether it is the inner work required to authentically take interest in someone else’s beliefs or to face our current situation and the coming challenges, we need deep-hearted courageousness. Courage, and the crucible of inner growth leading to action, is forged in times of challenge and in the face of fear. As we all inch toward the precipice of harder times on a warming planet, we will have abundant opportunities to be courageous. As Anais Nin wrote, “life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Virtues are not often celebrated or spoken of in our popular culture, and there is a veritable vacuum of integrity in many people in positions of power in our world. We must remember that it is a radical act to take a stand for that which is virtuous. The virtue of temperance, or voluntary self-restraint, applied to the consumption of all things, including news, could transform our collective wellbeing and give us a better chance at living in balance with the Earth. As we act from these guiding principles, courageously choosing love over fear, fairness over greed, restraint over addictive consumption, we can courageously reweave the fabric of our society and navigate the challenges that lie ahead.

 

Anna O’Malley, M.D., works with the Coastal Health Alliance and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden.