C is for Courage

and also for cor, the Latin word for heart. Which is the origin of courage, in both senses of the word. Early Modern English – think Shakespeare or the King James Bible – used courage to describe a bewildering array of concepts circling around the core of a person: spirit, mind, disposition, nature, purpose, inclination, lustiness, vigour, wrath, pride and confidence. Overused? You bet.

But there is an older meaning. Middle English – think Chaucer or John Wycliffe’s New Testament-  used it to mean “that quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear; bravery; valour.” (Thank the SOD for the definition; it’s better than I could have done.)

Osmar Schindler's David und Goliath

But there is one point on which I would take issue with the SOD (and so, I think would Plutarch). There is more to courage than “facing danger without fear.”  People – particularly young people, and particularly, it must be said, young men (I think it’s the testosterone that does it) – frequently do very dangerous things without the slightest hint of fear. Driving dangerously, jumping off cliffs, drinking more than is good for them, ingesting harmful chemicals…

This is not courageous. Stupid, yes. Courageous, no.

What makes the difference? Comte-Sponville thinks it’s whether you’re doing it for yourself or someone else. Myself, I think it’s a matter of why you’re doing it, and whether it or not it actually needs to be done. The same action can be pointlessly stupid or incredibly courageous, depending on your motivation. For example, jumping onto the train tracks to play chicken with a train is stupid, irresponsible and cruel (to the train-driver at the very least, and potentially to anyone who will miss you, and the person who will have to gather up the bits). Jumping on to the train tracks to save someone from a train, on the other hand, is immensely courageous.

Daniel Pemberton
But all this looks only at physical courage: braving physical danger or pain in the interests of what Plutarch would call a “just cause.” Physical courage can range from a child braving the needle for a vaccination, to the bravery of Edith Cavell, who risked her life to help the sick and injured in wartime, and in the end went calmly to her execution by firing squad.

Physical courage is not, however, the only kind; and it seems to me that the courage our world most suffers the lack of, is moral courage. The courage to do the right thing even if you do it alone. The courage to speak up when you know it’s going to cost you.

Whistle-blowers exhibit this kind of courage. They face ostracism, unemployment, imprisonment, exile, even death. But a whistle-blower is someone who is prepared to make personal sacrifices for the good of others, and that most certainly counts as courage.

And we need this kind of courage. It is the lack of this kind of courage that allows people to get away with abusing children, because other people don’t like to risk speaking up if they aren’t utterly sure. It’s the lack of this kind of courage that lets bullies and harassers run riot in organizations, because people are afraid of the backlash that will come from confronting or accusing someone in power. And so on and so forth.

Silence war
To a certain extent, this is a cultural problem. We in the West have this odd prejudice against “tattle-tales” – as though there was somehow something shameful in bringing wrongdoing to light and seeking justice. It is seen as admirable to endure maltreatment without complaint, and to cover up for those who instigate the maltreatment. This is insane. Really. It’s practically Stockholm syndrome.

Of course, it isn’t phrased like that. We talk about not whingeing or whining or squealing, not being a cry-baby who has to ‘run to mama.’ But the result is the same. Those who are mistreated – or see others mistreated – and speak out, are treated as though they are the guilty ones. Because they are seen as the cause of the shame, because they brought it to light. This is the same logic that makes Indian women afraid to report rape, because they will be seen as bringing shame on their families, rather than bringing shame on their attacker.

Our world needs courage. And as John Stuart Mill noted, where there is eccentricity there is moral courage. So let us take heart, my dear eccentrics, and be courageous. Let us face necessary dangers unflinchingly, and seek justice uncowed by disapproval, ostracism or threat. Because nothing instils courage in others like an example they can follow, just as the ship in polar seas sails freely in the ice-breaker’s wake.

Courage is contagious

I Have A Dream

I have a dream… a great and far-extending dream.

Lincoln Memorial I Have a Dream Marker 2413

I dream of a world where people are not trapped on a consumerist treadmill – either as consumers or consumed. A world where everyone has enough, and no-one is weighed down by too much. A world that values quality above quantity. A world where beauty is seen in individuality, both in people and in things. Standardization is an excellent thing in a cup measure but it is not a measure for humans.

I dream of a world in which people are not trafficked to feed the desires of others, whether for cheap goods, sex, or service. A world where the innate dignity of human-ness is respected. A world where sex is a matter of mutual committed love, not a matter of force or a financial transaction.

I dream of a world where people are not treated as interchangeable units, but valued for their individual talents. A world where the educational systems encourage those talents to flourish, so they can be used for the benefit of all, and not merely the profit of one’s employer. A world where everyone has something to do, and can experience the satisfaction of a job well done. A world where work is a right and a blessing, not an onerous burden or a forlorn hope.

look up

I dream of a world where people are rewarded for the value of their work rather than the prestige of it. A world where people are considered of greater importance than efficiency, profitability and wealth. A world where the economy serves the people, not the other way around. A world where governments act in their people’s best interests, rather than compelling the people to act in their government’s best interests.

A world without corruption. A world where the justice systems provide justice, but are not deaf to mercy; a world where sentences are aimed at restoration and rehabilitation, not at retribution and revenge. A world where laws are simple (and few) enough to be understood by all, and founded on fairness and common-sense, rather than the preferences of powerful lobbies.

A world where there is enough food for everyone, food that is healthy both for the people who eat it, and the land which produces it. A world that is tended like a garden, not hunted down like prey. A world where housing, clothing, and all the necessities and joys of life are produced in ways that harm neither the environment nor the people which produce them, nor those people who eventually use them.

I dream of a world where people do not have to risk their lives to seek a better life for themselves or their children; a world where people in need are not smuggled across borders or turned back with violence, but welcomed with open arms and open hands. I dream of a world where the right to live is not conditional on the acceptance of others.

Ivan Kulikov Dreamer

I dream of a world which experiences the peace which is more than the absence of war; a world where even interpersonal conflicts are handled with grace. A world where people are taught the life skills they really need: how to care for themselves and their families, how to manage their resources well, how to have healthy relationships. A world where communities are stronger than corporations.

I dream of a world where people with mental or physical disabilities are not marginalized, dehumanized, or hidden away; but rather treated as human beings just like the rest of us: different, but the same.

I dream of a world where medical systems are not understaffed, overworked, over-prescribing or over-standardized, but able to treat each person individually, taking the time to help them understand the situation and their options, and to be an active participant in their healing rather than the passive undergoer of standardized treatment.

There is more to this dream than I can say, and people have used many different words to try to sum up different parts of it. Lagom. Environmentally friendly. Fair Trade. Boundaries. Open borders. Restorative justice. Abolition.
But I have one phrase which sums this all up for me: the kingdom of God.

Wickham Market Hoard

The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like a treasure buried in a field. When a man found it, he sold off everything he had just so he could buy that field, and possess the treasure within it.
And this is a dream that is worth giving up everything for.

I can’t make this dream come true all by myself, I know that. But I can work on the parts of it that are given me to affect, and encourage those who I recognize as working on it too. I really do believe there is nothing more worth doing with the one life given to me.

If something is not worth dying for, it’s not worth living for either, because either way you are giving your life to it.
What dream are you giving your life to?