Of courage and fear, fear is the more difficult to define. It takes many forms and draws on primal insecurities – especially the instinct for self-preservation and an urgent need for the approval of our peers. Fear hinges on the potential for damage to our physical or psychic selves. While fear of death may be greatest, the fear of embarrassment is close behind – we harbor primitive instincts that drive us to conformity.
Courage is sometimes described as “doing the right thing.” Winston Churchill famously said that “fear is a reaction and courage is a decision.” That’s often true, but acts described as “courageous” may also be reactive. When a father jumps in front of an oncoming car to save his small child, is that not an act of pure instinct?
Such acts are observable in many mammals, and are not “courageous” in the sense intended here. A courage which faces down fear, which does the right thing despite the sensation of fear, could be described as “cognitive courage.” It represents not an insensitivity to fear, but a decision to act in spite of it. Cognitive courage is a character trait – a commitment to basing one’s actions on conscious decisions rather than instincts, fears or feelings. Courage, defined in this way, is unique to humankind.
The courageous individual must apply judgment in each courageous act — the exercise of courage requires a disciplined mind and strong values. Courage sometimes involves putting the interests of others above one’s own, but not always. Courage requires thinking and decision-making; it’s neither straightforward nor easy. Courage is a choice.
John R. Rogers
October 11, 2015